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Friday, August 21, 2009

Whistle blowers, corporate greed, and Matthew 18--a call for Christian accountability

Wendell Potter worked for 15 years as the head of public relations for CIGNA, one of the largest health insurance companies in the U.S. Wendell’s job was to keep high profile complaints from becoming major news stories. So when policy -holders were denied care or were kicked out of the plan for getting sick, Wendell’s job was to make sure that the fewer the people who knew about it, the better. For years, Wendell convinced himself that working on behalf of his company’s shareholders over and against the health needs of actual human beings was the right thing to do.

All of this changed at a health exhibit in Wise, West Virginia. When Wendell assumed that he would see things like routine blood pressure checks, what he actually saw astounded him. Wendell saw the people that were being treated in animal stalls and on gurneys, and the “long, long lines of people waiting to get care.” That’s when he had his epiphany. Wendell suddenly realized, “There could have been people and probably were people that I had grown up with. They could have been people who grew up at the house down the road, in the house down the road from me. And that made it real to me.”

Wendell Potter is now one of the nation’s top whistle-blowers advocating for health care reform. Whether you agree with Wendell’s politics or not, there’s something about Wendell’s story that I think should serve as a lesson for Christians of all political persuasions. In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus laid out a principle that, if applied correctly, could go a long way in correcting many of the problems associated with corporate greed.

“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”

As I reflect on Jesus’ words, I can’t help but to think of Wendell’s story. It took seeing real people for Wendell to realize that his line of work was harming people instead of helping them. I don’t know if Wendell Potter is a Christian, but let’s assume temporarily that he is a Christian and that all those years of covering up claims of health care abuse for the purpose of lining shareholders’ pockets, Wendell regularly attended a Christian church. Might it not have been appropriate for a Christian that had been unjustly denied care by Cigna to confront him on the basis of the Matthew 18 principle? And had Wendell refused to listen, might the next step not have been to bring two or three witnesses and then to talk with his pastor or the elders of the church? Had Wendell refused to listen at that point; then perhaps the pastor or the church elders could have chosen some form of church discipline, like excommunication or denying communion.

If such an approach seems far-fetched, it’s probably because of the gigantic gap between modern Christianity and New Testament Christianity. In New Testament times, Christians were admonished not to drag their fellow Christian to secular courts (I Corinthians 6:1-6). Moral disputes and reparations were supposed to be kept within the Church. Nowadays, most Christians are so accustomed to appealing directly to Caesar for justice that we virtually skip the process that Jesus and the Apostles laid out for dealing with sin in the Church.

I wonder how many American Christians are doing jobs similar to that of Wendell Potter, or any other number of jobs that work against the interests of the poor—be it here or a far away country—and haven’t given it a second thought? It’s to these Christians that I think the Matthew 18 principle could go a long way in helping them see the error of their ways. The issues then become less about politics and more about personal discipleship. The fewer the Christians there are participating in unjust corporate structures, the brighter the Church’s light will shine. May God raise up Matthew 18-type ministries everywhere!

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