Columns » Autumn Tolbert

No mercy

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I've been thinking a lot about mercy these days. As a child, growing up in a conservative church, mercy, at least in my memory, wasn't often addressed. We had several preachers over the years, so I'm sure it was the Sunday topic from time to time, but what stands out in my memory the most are the fire and brimstone sermons and the warnings of an angry God. If he was worked up enough, a certain preacher we had for much of my youth would stomp his feet and shake his fists at us as he warned us of eternity in hell. I was confused as to how hell could be both a lake of fire and a bottomless pit. Uncontroverted, however, was that there would be much weeping and gnashing of teeth. And that we all were probably headed that way if we didn't stop our sinning right then and there. 

The church I now attend starts each service with a version of the Kyrie eleison, a call to the Lord for mercy. It also serves as a reminder for us to incorporate mercy into our lives. Mercy isn't just a Christian ideal. The idea is found in just about every single world religion and, honestly, many of my atheist and agnostic friends seem to understand and practice the concept of mercy better than many of my Christian friends. Probably because they haven't been corrupted by the cherry-picked Bible verses so many use to justify vengeance as a superior concept. They don't need a religious text to tell them to be good and kind to each other. It just feels right and human to want to look out for others. 

I'm not one to mix government and religion, but it looks like that's where we are headed after President Trump's "religous liberty" executive order, so I wonder if the Arkansas Legislature and congressional delegation need to incorporate a reminder of mercy into their day-to-day itinerary. At least then we might get a thoughtful reflection and consideration of the effects of the health care bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives last week. Instead, we get singing and celebrating while seniors, parents of disabled children, those with chronic illnesses, and women wonder who these men really represent. It doesn't feel like it is any of us. 

I believe health care is a right. If God bestowed upon us, as state Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) recently argued, the right to carry a gun everywhere, including to football games and the college dormitory, then surely we have the right to have our ills tended. However, I understand this isn't the law and isn't what everyone believes. Many think health care is a privilege, and we get what we can afford. If that's the case, isn't it merciful to provide it to those who cannot afford it? I'm talking really provide it. Preventative care. Affordable medication. Immediate mental health and addiction treatment. Not merely acute care at an emergency room. 

I argue that last week's vote is the equivalent of U.S. Reps. Steve Womack, French Hill, Bruce Westerman and Rick Crawford holding our medication in their clenched hands and telling us if we worked harder, we could afford it. Layers of government and health providers cannot absolve them from the intended results of this bill. Our state officials don't get a pass on this either. Several of them sure do like to trot out (and tweet out) Bible verses supporting capital punishment, public prayer in schools, Ten Commandment displays and legalizing discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. Where are the verses about helping the poor and immigrant communities? Where are the verses about truthfulness? Where are the verses about compassion? Where are the calls for mercy? 

Look around. Many of our neighbors are already in a bottomless pit of suffering from the criminalization of poverty and addiction, devastating immigration policies, and lack of affordable food and housing. Now our state faces cuts to Medicaid, potentially unaffordable medication and insurance for those with pre-existing conditions, and the loss of emergency care due to the inevitable closing of rural hospitals. Things will only get worse for too many Arkansans. Indeed, Lord, have mercy. Because our elected officials sure don't. 

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