It was with great interest that I read the thoughtful responses to my article on a
Kingdoms Approach to Health Care. I hope this exchange has opened interesting new
avenues of debate among Anabaptists about how to structure our views on public policy.
In different ways, James Harder and Herman Bontrager each argued that my proposals were intriguing, but ultimately impractical. In places, Stoltzfus Jost and Kotva make similar arguments. I will respond to these concerns in a moment.
More pointedly, however, Stoltzfus Jost and Kotva spent much effort
outing me as a
radical libertarian — which I am not — rather than joining me in a search for
Anabaptist principles by which to guide the church’s journey into the world of public
policy. I hope by clarifying some of these issues to allow us to move beyond labeling
each other with secular political categories and instead toward a joint exploration of
In several places, Stoltzfus Jost and Kotva draw on Gerald Biesecker-Mast’s new book, Separation and the Sword, to argue that I over interpret the relevance of the Schleitheim Confession’s separatist ethic as representing the orthodox Anabaptist view on the sword. This is a potentially devastating criticism of my argument, and since I completed my article in November —before Biesecker-Mast’s book appeared — I was willing to accept the possibility that later Anabaptist writers rejected the Schleitheim Confession’s views on church-state relations, and that my first premise was mistaken.
But then I read Biesecker-Mast’s book. Much to my relief, I found nothing in it to contradict my reading of Schleitheim, or its guiding place in any Anabaptist ethical framework. This left me wondering about the motives of my critics.
Biesecker-Mast’s thesis is that there was an evolving struggle on the part of Anabaptists as to how to evaluate magistrates. The central question was not whether Anabaptists should participate in state activities, as implied by Stoltzfus Jost and Kotva, but rather whether or not to acknowledge non-Anabaptist Christian magistrates as Christians. In order to find peace within a majority Reformed society, Anabaptists decided, in carefully worded texts, to accept the possibility that one could be a Christian and a magistrate. They did not extend this to argue that one could be an Anabaptist and a magistrate. As Biesecker-Mast makes clear in several places, Menno Simons and others were very skeptical of the possibility of a Christian magistrate, but they were willing to grant it in theory, to avoid having to denounce their otherwise tolerant Reformed magistrates as false Christians. Moreover, their calls on the state to protect the poor were not, so far as I could discern, pleas to engage the state in social welfare projects, but rather for the state to protect Anabaptists from persecution, so they could live out their faith. This is very different from the reading given by my critics, and is fully in keeping with similar language found in Schleitheim.
Finally, as evidence to support the idea that one could be an Anabaptist and a magistrate, Stoltzfus Jost and Kotva refer to the example of Pilgrim Marpeck. But as Biesecker-Mast recounts in the very passage they cite, Marpeck himself found it impossible to be an agent of the city of Rattenberg. Rather than exercise the coercive power of the state as a magistrate, he resigned his position and moved to Strasbourg, where he returned to his profession of civil engineer (p. 125), albeit in the employ of the state. I am not so much of a purist to argue that all public employment should be off limits to Anabaptists. Even the Amish work as public school teachers, for instance. Marpeck’s story, however, supports my argument; it does not undermine it.
Next, Stoltzfus Jost and Kovta accuse me of not sufficiently understanding the
of Christ. Here, they invoke John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus. Prior to submitting
my article, I re-read Yoder on this very point. In this reading, I came away disappointed
in Yoder’s argument that Jesus’ invocation of the Jubilee year could be applied to Roman
civil authorities. Yoder’s argument requires that we extend statements that Jesus made
about religious bodies’ to reform of the state. In places I think even Yoder realizes this is
a stretch. I admit that this is not the usual interpretation of him, but one which deserves
more attention as we consider the role of Anabaptists in politics.
Finally, Stoltzfus Jost and Kotva harshly criticize me for invoking Robert Nozick, who
they also label a
radical libertarian. They dismiss Nozick as irrelevant because of what
they take to be his defense of current private property arrangements, which are not
particularly germane to his discussion of the principles of a framework society. Here I
was particularly puzzled, first, because I think they misunderstand Nozick, and second
because I did not see this as a particularly useful way of getting at the point they were
trying to raise.
I would encourage them also to re-read Anarchy, State, and Utopia, because in the book Nozick does not claim that existing property arrangements are just. Rather, he painstakingly sets out to what would be necessary for them to be so. In his view, two conditions need be met: the original acquisition of the property needs to be just, and every single transfer of that property needs to have occurred without coercion — that is through a just transfer. Clearly much of the property now in existence does not meet these criteria, but Nozick is writing about a hypothetical world, not the world in which we live, and he never claims otherwise.
But this is mostly beside the point, as I did not address the issue of rights to property or anything else, so I have trouble understanding Stoltzfus Jost and Kotva’s basis for presuming anything about what I think regarding property rights whatsoever.
This leads to a final puzzle. They accuse me of arguing that taxation is theft. I went out
of my way to avoid polemical language, so this surprised me and I had to go back to see
if I had been so careless. I was relieved to discover that I had not. What I said, instead, is
that taxes are collected
at the point of a gun. What I had very specifically in mind was
the story of Valentine Byler, the Amish farmer who refused to pay Social Security taxes.
On April 18, 1961, the IRS came into his fields and seized three horses, which were sold
at auction on May 1, depriving him of the ability to plant his crop and tend to his fields.
Although I have no reason to believe he resisted, I am quite confident that the agents who
came to get his animals were armed. Those who have acquaintances who have been tax
resisters, as do I, will also recognize that the government uses force — rightly or wrongly
— whenever people refuse to pay their taxes. Moreover, in no way did I argue that this
use of force was illegitimate and therefore equivalent to theft. Indeed, to do so would be
to undermine a central argument of the article — that the tool of force is legitimately
available to government and endorsed by Schleitheim, just as we are called to renounce
force as Anabaptists.
Frankly, I do not have strong beliefs on the role of property rights within a Christian framework, except to say that I suspect the Amish probably understand this better than the Hutterites. On the question of the Hutterite women being denied Medicaid because the colonies have too much money, the problem here seems to be the decision-procedures of the colony, not the state’s refusal to give the women Medicaid benefits. Presumably if they left the colony they would be eligible, as it should be. I see no reason why anyone should be able to have their cake and eat it too.
In response to the economic issues raised by Harder and Bontrager, if their arguments amount to a defense of the existing health care system, I am happy to go along. But I doubt that the current employer-based insurance system is sustainable, and I suspect that the national debate will grow in intensity as we move into the next presidential election cycle. I predict one of two things will eventually happen: Either we will rapidly move to a single payer system or its near equivalent — with the inevitable collective rationing that will follow — or we will move in the other direction, toward a system in which individuals bear more of the responsibility for decisions about what kind of care to buy.
If there is a shift in the direction of single-payer insurance, there is little we can do to apply Christian principles to the field of health care, and my proposals will be irrelevant.
If it goes in the direction of individual responsibility, however, I believe a new opening will be created for Mennonites and other Anabaptists to try to think about how to care for each other and provide for the needy within a voluntary system. As I indicated, I do not think this will be easy, but it is not so difficult as Harder and Bontrager make out, once we assume a major change away from employer-provided insurance. There are already a number of viable Christian mutual aid programs: Samaritan Ministries, Christian Care Medi-Share, and the Christian Brotherhood are three that I recently discovered. They are able to solve the various — and very real — problems raised by my critics, while providing a low cost alternative to traditional insurance. While not endorsing any one of them, I would encourage Mennonites to consider whether we might not be able to organize something similar, were significant numbers of us suddenly to be faced with purchasing individual insurance. I suspect the reason mutual aid systems gradually disappeared, as described by Bontrager, is less because they did not work and more because fewer and fewer Mennonites were purchasing their own health care, as they left farms and moved into jobs which came with insurance. We may soon return to a situation in which Mennonites, along with everyone else, are left to make many more of their own decisions regarding the financing of health care, and I would encourage us to think about Anabaptist ways of responding both to the needs of those within our congregations, as well as those of the less fortunate around us, rather than looking to government to absolve us of this Christian responsibility to care for each other.