Graduate Theological Society

March 27, 2006

Response to Eberhart on “Just Care for the Sick”

Filed under: Eberhart on TennCare, Proceedings — graduatetheology @ 3:29 pm

Add your comments to Tim Eberhart’s paper here.


  1. Tim,

    Excellent paper. I think you are absolutely right…

    I was especially struck by this statement at the beginning of the paper:

    That Christians are to seek justice for the sick, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, I hold to be an essential, non-negotiable Christian mandate. Just exactly how justice is ultimately pursued by ecclesial communions, whether through civic engagement or not, seems to me to fall within what has often been deemed a matter of adiaphora a matter of indifference, or a matter over which Christians can genuinely disagree and remain fundamentally united.

    At some level, though, I do think that one cause (though not an excuse) for inaction on the part of local churches is a failure to agree on some sort of how. But, I mean, that still affirms your basic point…that whether or not we decide that the most proper way to address this absolutely disastrous problem is through ecclesial or civic means cannot take for granted that action is required as a demonstration of God’s justice; or, in other words, something must be done, a “how” must be decided upon, despite what it is. My only question for you, now, is how exactly do our churches come to that place where they can get past the dogmatic barriers which hinder them from acting, simply because they can’t agree on a how? I know, you understand that your paper–creating an awareness of the problem, the biblical demand(s) for justice and faithful ecclesial life, and the UTTER FAILURE of churches to live out justice–is the first step. But, where do we go from here? I don’t think I’m sidestepping the main issue of your paper to “get back” to the theological drawing board…I honestly think that the only true response that we (the Church) can give to your paper is to finally decide that this is not a question for us and that we must now come together in love and unity to act on behalf of those who cry out for God’s justice…

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 28, 2006 @ 11:32 am

  2. Sorry for all of the italics.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 28, 2006 @ 11:34 am

  3. Ok. I’ll make a critical remark now, lest some of you think I only have critical powers in relation to papers with which I disagree.

    At what point does the “demand for biblical justice” become merely “obligatory”? Or is this even a problem for you? I of course need not tell you, Tim, how a “duty” to love can quite easily become a formula for hate…so I know that you are aware of this problem…yet, if the problem is simply that we aren’t acting as a Church body (or body of churches), and the solution is that we then act (regardless of how), isn’t the “how” already going to determine whether or not the “duty” to act is loving or hateful? And thus isn’t the how just as important as the what? For instance, if the sinfulness of our inaction is made manifest to us by a call to a “duty” to be just — or to act on behalf of the sick — the manner in which we then decide to act (the obligation of moral civic duty in honoring the autonomy and dignity of each person afforded with the right to this dignity and autonomy — or, the moral ecclesial duty to be obedient to the mandates of Scripture…to a law of the word) will always be determined prior to the action…there is no “what” of action without some “how.” I realize that your point is simply that theological speculations on the how — while relevant, and even necessary — can easily distract us from the brute faktum (as Heidegger might say) of the necessity for action (a fact I don’t dispute…otherwise it would be neither brute nor a fact). I hope it is beginning to become clear that one could justifiably perceive a divide in your thinking, here, between “contemplation” and “action” — even if that is not what you intend (and I’ve said to some of you guys before, I feel that it is this perception — among many of us, not simply in what you are saying Tim — which kept us from seeing what a coherent “synthesis” (for lack of better word, right now) might look like). So, if justice, or caritas, is an “obligation,” then in what way do we keep this obligation from becoming something as grueling as the Holocaust, for example (a rather crude if not overused…but vivid…example of the predication of justice as obligation)? I suppose both of the questions I’ve put to you thus far are kind of asking for your own “how” (and though I know in conversations in the past you have placed yourself in the “mainline” ecclesial response, I’d like to hear how you’d work that out now after writing this brilliant paper — one which it would be impossible not to impact its own author). Peace.

    p.s. Your summary of the different ecclesial responses rather reminded me of Avery Dulles “models” of the Church. While I don’t always find “models” and typologies extremely helpful (especially with something that is often deemed a “mystery” in the traditions of the Church), moving beyond the staleness of saying that one is quite obviously better than the other by saying that unity between them is most important was excellent, for me.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — March 28, 2006 @ 3:48 pm

  4. Dave,

    I just checked the site this morning. I’ll have time this evening to respond to your helpful posts.



    Comment by Tim Eberhart — March 29, 2006 @ 10:37 am

  5. Dave,

    Thanks for the affirmative words on the paper – I’m glad it was helpful. A few thoughts in response to your posts.

    At the time I was writing this paper, I had two primary groups of people with whom I found myself in continual internal conversation – those like Dan Joranko and Diana Gallaher who have tirelessly fought to save TennCare, precisely because they see their advocacy for the poor to be a natural expression of their understanding of biblical/christian justice and others who, for a variety of reasons, have come to see such advocacy as an actual failure to pursue true Christian justice/caritas. And I found myself equally compelled and frustrated by both ‘groups’ – compelled on both sides by what seemed to be authentic/legitimate theological/biblical claims and frustrated on both sides by their inability/unwillingness to see the ‘truth’ in another Christian position on this issue. Simultaneously, it struck me that the two really need each other – someone like Diana needs to be fully integrated into a substantial Christian community that itself embodies the justice of God we know in Jesus Christ (and I know she truly does desire this), and those who are so critical of someone like Diana need to sit with her for just a while as the poor, abandoned, and frightened come to her office for help day after day.

    As to your point that the cause of inaction in our churches seems to be their failure to agree on the ‘how’ – first of all, I’m not so sure that this is the case in our actual churches. It may be a cause of failure in theologians like us who have the capacity to analyze ourselves into paralysis by incessantly seeking after the *perfect* response (which is an impossibility and a profoundly sinful search, by the way), but I don’t think this is what is happenening in our churches. The problem here seems to have more to do with a lack of freedom (both spiritually and physically) to recklessly pursue any truly committed course of action. Secondly, however, if the cause of ecclesial inaction is in fact an inability to agree, universally, on a ‘how,’ then yes, part of the intent with this paper is to free up Christians on all sides to pursue their ‘how’ without needing to believe as if it were the one and only ‘how.’

    I guess I’m trying to follow Wesley’s ‘catholic spirit’ here in identifying a kind of shared, biblical foundation upon which almost all ecclesial communions seem to already agree (at least at the level of official rhetoric) – the sick, who are poor, ought to be cared for by curative participation in community. That this basic biblical mandate has been worked out in a number of different ways in ecclesial history can be viewed as a profound fracturing of the one body or it can be seen in a more creative way (possibly a Hegelian way) as the work of the Spirit manifesting herself in multiple ways (I realize this claim will be the most contested and requires more explanation).

    As to your question about how we get past the dogmatic barriers – we don’t. We continue to seek after a unity that does not, at least on the front end, subsume the particular differences that define our many ecclesial communions. We go in trusting that the Holy Spirit has sown her gifts in all her churches and that, *if* we are to find unity, it will come after we have learned how to love and trust one another to the point that we are able to encourage and spur on one another while at the same time being able to critize and converse from one’s own ecclesial place. This is the sense in which I am specifically *not* setting up a divide between contemplation and action but rather affirming that the contemplation that has already taken place within each of our ecclesial bodies does in fact contain (at least partially) the truth. This paper sought to identify the ‘crisis’ present in *all* our churches – that at least on the question of the poor, none of us are walking faithfully in the ways that (we have respectively come to believe) lead to life.

    Am I setting forth a ‘duty’ that is ‘obligatory’ for all Christians? Here, and elsewhere, I intentionally choose to use the language of the scriptures, which do not speak of obligations or duties (with Kant) but rather commandments, even teachings (torah) which instruct us in the way. The way(s) of the torah and the way(s) of Jesus Christ are not duties that we grudgingly fufill but fully embodied paths upon which we find the truth that is life.

    Much more needs to be said, but my ride just drove up and I’m heading out for the weekend to Arkansas, which means I won’t be able to respond again until Monday at the earliest.



    Comment by Tim Eberhart — March 30, 2006 @ 10:14 am

  6. re: “The problem here seems to have more to do with a lack of freedom (both spiritually and physically) to recklessly pursue any truly committed course of action.”

    I fully agree with this assessment of the matter, especially inasmuch as you juxtapose this to a paralysis associated with a search for the perfect action. My own insistence upon the ecclesial priority in this matter has to do precisely with this concern. I just really think that “Church,” not perfect Church, not predicated-on-prior-unity Church, is the only place from which to address the problem. I do not, by the way, think that this excludes companionship with other communions and workers, except inasmuch as the ‘State’ becomes the object upon which we displace our own failure to take responsibility. The real problem, it seems to me, is that we cannot but rely on the big-Other of the state in the absence of a Church that is radically committed to caring for these sick, and to caring for those caring for these sick – upholding them, sustaining them, treating their wounds as well. The fact that in this paper you are calling for such an action is what I absolutely agree with in this paper. The overarching question of strategy, I think, still remains.

    Comment by Josh — March 30, 2006 @ 4:49 pm

  7. Tim,

    I’ll go from bottom up this time. I have no problem with a “biblical mandate” for caring for the poor — in other words, I think you are right that the biblical “commandment” is not the same thing as “obligation” or “duty.” But, one reason I asked this question, and the other one about where you might place yourself in your ecclesial “models” after having written this paper, is that if there is a displacement of “responsibility,” as Josh put it, to the state, then how do we guard the commandment from being appropriated into a mere Kantian ought? (and if displacement is simply an historical fact — as I believe it is — then hasn’t it already been appropriated…isn’t that what the capital-driven state is so good at?)

    On the issue of the “how”: I honestly think this is just a matter of emphasis. I agree that the problem is still a failure to act…and I further agree that the sinful pursuit of a “perfect” how will always lead us into paralysis. This latter point is not what I intended by suggesting that there were “dogmatic barriers” that keep us from agreeing on a how. My point was to say that the sheer necessity of the what cannot exclude the fact that some how is already demanded in order for the what to be carried out; and that the [perhaps Hegelian] multiplicity of hows is indeed a barrier among some churches; and that quite simply some how — not a perfect one — must be able to “transcend,” if you will, those barriers in order for us to be able to actually move forward. The ecclesial paralysis, and the ensuing displacement of responsibility onto the state, are still two sides of one and the same problem. I do think there is a prior problem here, however, that hasn’t yet been mentioned. It would seem that the sheer necessity of the what is not shared among the churches. The fact that the [majority of the] white churches can so easily dismiss or ignore the [Memphis] black churches’ demand for action is evidence of this. But — of course! — many churches would say they “believe” that Scriptures command us to act on behalf of the poor, sick, etc (“Haven’t you read our ‘mission statement’?”). So, the real problem here isn’t that a what isn’t shared, it is that that belief itself has become a mere semblance — because not embodied in organizing tactics or practices. And I think that ultimately this can be traced (historically, even) to a gradual displacement of “belief” onto “the state” — which is one reason why I liked Dave Dunn’s paper so much. I think we are all sort of nodding our heads at this point…we have always been in agreement about this issue — with plenty of allowable variances, of course. But, when we begin to think about how to actually address the problem, it becomes clear (to me, at least) that this problem itself is still a failure of some how (again, I’m not saying a perfect how…”some” how). Now…here is the reason I say this is only a matter of emphasis. In the past, you have said (and you give hints here in your paper) that raising the question of “how” has lead and will inevitably lead to interrupting any real action. This is why you would say that the “problem” here is not a (dis)agreement on the how, necessarily, but the paralysis to act itself. But, aren’t we saying the same thing? We both recognize a failure to act…we both recognize that a search for a perfect how keeps us nailed to the floor…and that we simply must act (as a mandate of Scripture)…I am simply saying that we have to have some how in order to do that…and that right now we don’t have that because the only real “how” in this situation is offered to us by — or more like we have offered up in deference to — the state. Sorry for being redundant.


    Comment by Dave Belcher — April 3, 2006 @ 12:11 pm

  8. Josh and Dave,

    Since both of you are pressing me on questions of strategy, I’ll offer one response here. What both of you seem to be implicitly requiring of me is to identify the one, indisputable ecclesial strategy in our present situation on how to best fulfill the biblical mandate to care for the sick/poor via communal inclusion/participation, when what my paper sought to accomplish was the identification of what I want to affirm are (at least) 4 legitimate strategies – legitimacy here marked by an alignment between each of the four ecclesial positions which I identified with the biblical shape of justice. The point of this paper was not the development of my own ‘how’ or an attempt to establish the superiority of one ecclesial strategy above all the others (which is what almost all contemporary discussions on questions of church/state/justice seem fixated upon) but the recognition that many of our respective ecclesial ‘hows,’ though strategically quite different, are already partially-authentic expressions of the common biblical mandate to seek justice for the poor who are sick. In other words, both the ‘what’ (one) AND the ‘how’ (many) are already in place in most of our churches (I say most because I’m not ruling out the reality and presence of heresy). So I’m intentionally trying NOT to urge one specific course of action in this situation but rather attempting to urge all Christians to act within the various courses of action already set forth by their officially stated ecclesial positions/vows.

    I realize that this very claim is problematic for you precisely because you believe the liberal and mainline positions to be untenable in light of your deepening sense of the total and utter depravity of the ‘State’ (which you often capitalize, giving it a kind of persona which, or rather who, always acts in ways that are already seemingly predetermined for you), but I think it is worth noting that in doing so, you are departing from almost every major theological tradition (including the Augustinian, Thomistic, Lutheran, Calvinistic, Wesleyan, even Barthian traditions) except the ‘sectarian.’ Though, on one level, I also lean in this direction, in that I too desire and even believe in the kind of church which itself might visibly manifest the kind of justice (rightness/righteousness/justification) we know in Jesus Christ (and am personally working in this direction via my own denomination), I am not willing to go so far as to say that there is absolutly no good, no justice which might be accomplished in working to impact any given state at any given time.

    Con amor,


    Comment by Tim Eberhart — April 3, 2006 @ 7:25 pm

  9. Tim,

    Thanks for the love.

    A couple of clarifying points:
    1) I certainly was not asking that you “identify the one, indisputable ecclesial strategy in our present situation on how to best fulfill the biblical mandate to care for the sick/poor via communal inclusion/participation”; my question to you was simply trying to get a little more perspective from your end…I know that you would not consider your “position” among these four models to be a mere amalgum of the four, so to which “how” do you subscribe? That was all I was asking for. Conversations in the past and your response here seems to confirm that you are pretty easily situated within the “mainline” model (perhaps with a little bit of liberal flava’), but I would just like to hear your take.

    2) I intentionally did not capitalize “state,” in order to keep it at the general level without a predetermined persona. In fact, it should be clear from past conversations that I don’t find recourse to “the state” helpful at all, as I understand Power to be centralized at the global(izing) and not local level (which means it’s not really “centralized” at all any longer)…as I’ve said before, I really do buy into Hardt and Negri’s analysis of “Empire” (whereas I disagree profoundly — for the most part — with their constructive proposal). And though Josh did capitalize state once, he put scare-quotes around it and then “un-capitalized” it in the next sentence (I understood the scare-quotes around the first “State” to refer to the fact that the state is the Church’s “big-Other,” not to its totalizing, and thus depraved, nature — but I’ll let him answer that charge).

    Ok. I have a lot more to say (especially to what seems like an identification of my “position” with the “sectarian” model), but I’ll take a break and give you time to respond. Peace.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — April 3, 2006 @ 8:09 pm

  10. This will need to be brief…

    The two theological/ecclesial trajectories that I find most compelling are those which are grounded in either the Augustinian or the Tertullian-Monastic-LeftWingofRef. traditions. And although my deepest love (and commitment) belongs to the latter, ultimately, I think both of them need to be held together.

    Neither the ‘conservative’ nor ‘liberal’ positions, as I see it, are grounded with much depth either historically or theologically, and of the four, are the most susceptible to being ideologically coopted. The best insights of either of these positions ultimately derive from the other two (and here I will affirm them), without at the same time maintaining their complexity (which is where I will challenge them).

    I am committed (I’d say even vocationally driven) to helping the church (or at least my own denomination) move toward a much more substantial embodiment of Christian life-together in our time, and here I draw heavily upon various ‘sectarian’ (such a horrible word) models. At the same time, I have always envisioned such an ecclesial community as being capable of ‘sending’ some of its members to engage in the ‘political,’ both for the purposes of mission and because of an awareness of (and a desire to mitigate) complicity.

    Peace, love, and admiration,


    Comment by Tim Eberhart — April 4, 2006 @ 8:50 am

  11. Thanks Tim. I’ll try to say more later. Peace.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — April 4, 2006 @ 9:02 am

  12. Ok. A little more.

    Here’s a quote from Hardt and Negri’s Empire, which sums up my [political] reasons for the belief that the Church cannot and should not displace its responsibility onto the state — or, as you quite rightly say of me, why I believe “the liberal and mainline positions to be untenable”:

    The decline of any autonomous political sphere signals the decline, too, of any independent space where revolution could emerge in the national political regime, or where social space could be transformed using the instruments of the state. The traditional idea of counter-power and the idea of resistance against modern sovereignty in general thus becomes less and less possible (307-8).

    Obviously Hardt and Negri see a shift in sovereignty — they believe we have entered into “postmodernity” (by this they generally mean the end of both the era of the “crisis of modernity” as well as the era of “imperialism” (defined as empire/colony or center/periphery type imperialism as up to the revolutions of the early 20th century)). The short version of this new sovereignty is what I stated in Victor’s Political Ethics class a while back that got Victor laughing at me, and many [well, most] students — including you, Tim — in an uproar: “[the global flow of] capital is the new Empire (not America).” We can of course argue over this, but that seems not to be the real issue here. H&N’s claims (about a shift in sovereignty) seem to be right to me (and it ultimately does not matter exactly where we decide that shift is located, at this point), and it would take a lot of work to demonstrate that they are indeed flatout wrong. So, there are my political reasons…it doesn’t amount to a total depravity of the state (and though I may be Protestant, I am MUCH more Catholic…I don’t believe in total depravity in any sense…I won’t even go with Barth down the road of Nothingness…or at least only so far), just to a total subordination of the sovereignty of the nation-state to the decentralized hybrid sovereignty of global capital [production].

    Ok. As far as my theological reasons. I actually don’t find it all that helpful to say that the “Augustinian, Thomistic, Lutheran, Calvinistic, Wesleyan, even Barthian traditions” all affirm recourse to [national] gubernatorial authority, therefore so should we. I think it is incredibly helpful to ask such questions as: “How would Augustine, or Aquinas, or Luther, or Calvin, or Wesley, or Barth respond to our current political situation–e.g., TennCare?” But, these kinds of questions must keep in mind our context, which is radically different than all of the above listed…this does not mean sacrificing the content of the gospel in order to address our context — what so many have accused liberation theology of doing. Rather, it means that our methods must be able to be speculatively situated in our contemporary socio-political context, simply because that is where our neighbor is. This is where I find the work of someone like William Cavanaugh so extroardinarily helpful. The tortured, disappeared victims of Chile — at that time at the hands of a brutal nation-state — requires a method which interprets Romans 13 in a different light…and isn’t that what he ultimately does? It is from the Church, and the life given in the unity of the body at the table of the Lord, that the violence of the sinful, distorted state is overcome (and we can really read Romans 12-13 in this light…the strange sort of submission to the governing authorities seemingly required — or at least interpreted by a host of “liberal” thinkers — as a civic duty is LOVE…by loving their enemies through Eucharistic grace, they heap burning coals on the sinful system…this of course does not destroy the state, but rather, creates martyrs — witnesses to the truth that love overcomes evil…and this indeed is the kind of submission Romans 13 calls us to…at least in light of a necessary shift of method in order to properly address the contemporary situation). Something like this is required of us…but in my mind one which recognizes the shift of sovereignty (and of course, as you say, the complicity of the Church within that shift–e.g., what Certeau refers to as the “erosion of belief”). I actually have MORE to say, believe it or not, but I’ll leave it here for now. Peace.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — April 5, 2006 @ 10:55 am

  13. Sorry, the following, “the strange sort of submission to the governing authorities seemingly required — or at least interpreted by a host of “liberal” thinkers — as a civic duty is LOVE,” should read “…as a civic duty [COMMA], is [in Cavanaugh][COMMA], LOVE.”

    Comment by Dave Belcher — April 5, 2006 @ 11:01 am

  14. One last clarifying point…for those of you who have not read Cavanaugh, or who see a grand misinterpretation of Cavanaugh in my comment, I should add that this kind of “loving our enemies” is not a blind submission to power…Cavanaugh reminds us that there are strategies — similar to Foucault — of discipline that the Church “uses”; for instance, excommunication is a way for the Chilean Church to love their enemies back to the Church (not of keeping sin out) — after all, those who have severed themselves from the unity of the Church by their violent actions against the Church’s members have already excommunicated themselves…the Church is then in the position to reject them or to love them in such a way as to pronounce that the body of Christ IS love, and not death, sin, and evil.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — April 5, 2006 @ 11:09 am

  15. I know that everyone is busy — especially with school ending (are classes over, still going, right in the middle of exams? out of the loop) — but I just wanted to say that whenever everyone has more time (which might be a while, I realize), I would really love to continue this important conversation. Thanks for everything so far. Peace.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — April 12, 2006 @ 9:53 am

  16. Dave, sorry to simply completely abandon conversation with you a few weeks back – I’m really trying to get through Bonhoeffer’s Works by the end of this month, along with a stack of secondary sources. So look for a re-engagement in a few weeks. Yours, Tim

    Comment by Tim Eberhart — April 18, 2006 @ 11:03 am

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