Health and Religion

Who Are the Disadvantaged? Ills caused by affluence must receive the attention of the church as well as ills caused by poverty.

Thomas W. Klewin is a retired United States Air Force chaplain, professional writer, and former health educator. He makes his home in Crapaud, Prince Edward Island, Canada.


Christian charity's outreach of love to the body, mind, and soul has tradition ally focused on the poor and disadvantaged, especially in the Third World. It has attempted to meet the economic, social, and medical problems of these people as well as touching them with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Paradoxically, we may now have to include among the "disadvantaged" those living the so-called good life amid all the trappings of affluence. Self-indulgent living habits have replaced germs, viruses, and communicable diseases as the major cripplers and killers in our prosperous, industrialized, technological society. Yet the dangers of such an approach to life are largely unnoticed, disregarded, or even denied.

Before 1900 the primary killers in the United States were diseases such as typhoid fever, tuberculosis, cholera, nephritis, influenza, pneumonia, and, for children, whooping cough and diphtheria. Medical advances and other improvements have largely conquered these scourges in the industrialized Western world. Health experts refer to this as the first revolution in medicine. It is a revolution the Christian church has embraced and taken with it as it has gone out into the less-developed parts of the world. Even today, the church asks concerned Christians to contribute funds and expertise so that medical mission can be a part of its spiritual mission.

While the church has focused its attention on the malnutrition, poverty, illness, and premature death that form a way of life for more than half the world, a need has arisen for a second medical revolution preventive medicine. The church can and must also carry this revolution to those to whom it is ministering in the affluent, industrialized world where the first medical revolution is already a fact of life. If it is concerned about human beings and the quality of human life, the church must join the second medical revolution and help combat those life-shortening diseases that are now responsible for three fourths of all deaths occurring in the United States and Canada. The cause of these diseases? unhealthful living habits that have evolved over the past fifty years. Our "good life" is rapidly be coming a way of death.

The health experts point to four primary areas of abuse: (1) Diet. Most of us eat too much and improperly. Obesity, lack of exercise, and undue stress and tension combine to magnify our dietary imbalance. 2. Smoking, especially cigarettes. 3. Alcohol. Ten million Americans are alcoholics or problem drinkers. 4. The pollution of our environment, including the proliferation of chemicals and additives, which eventually find their way into the water, soil, and air.

The solutions proposed by health experts and massive government programs already operating in Sweden and Finland (and taking shape in Canada) are remarkably similar to what evangelical Christianity has always asked of Christians—a change in life style. Heart dis ease, stroke, arteriosclerosis, cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a wide variety of lung dis eases have no real, permanent solutions except prevention. Since there are no miracle vaccines, antibiotics, or drugs on the horizon that will eliminate the dis eases of the "good life," the only answer is to change life styles, clean up the environment, and eliminate those unwholesome habits that contribute to dis ability or early death.

This second medical revolution has theological implications that the church, and especially the clergy, must consider. Not only must we consider our own life style, but also how involved the church and Christians should become in seeking to eradicate these life-crippling problems.

Some believe that the business of the church is to preach the gospel and stay out of "social," "economic," and "political" issues. Many are convinced that one's life style is a matter of personal freedom, and consequently falls outside the scope of either the church or the government.

Others, in contrast, point out that Christian stewardship has always included the care of one's own body as well as the resources of the earth, predicated on the belief that no individual owns anything absolutely, not even his or her own body. We possess and use all things, according to traditional Christian theology, as a trust from God, the Creator and final Sovereign. To abuse, misuse, or neglect our bodies is to violate the principle of Christian stewardship.

Likewise, Christian theology has stated that our bodies are the temple of God, within which the Holy Spirit dwells. Consequently, we do not possess the freedom to deal with our bodies as we choose. We are to glorify God in our bodies by how we live and what we do with them. We are to keep our bodies under spiritual control, never permitting self-indulgence or a flagrant disregard for what is good to rule us.

A scriptural mandate for the Christian's involvement in the second medical revolution may be found in the commandment to love our neighbor as ourself. According to traditional Christian interpretation, a "neighbor" is anyone in need of our help and assistance. Those living a destructive life style must certainly be placed in this category.

The commandment "Thou shall not kill" (Ex. 20:13) includes the thought that we are not to harm our neighbor in his body, but help and defend him in his every bodily need. Certainly this commandment includes warning others and assisting them to deal with destructive life styles. Cain's query, "Am I my brother's keeper?" requires an affirmative answer. The church and Christians have no alternative but to be concerned and to try to alleviate this situation.

Christian charity has traditionally been associated with alleviating the ills of society, not only on the level of the individual, but also in the family, community, country, and world. Yet an individual's life may become just as stunted by self-indulgence based on the "good life" as from poverty, malnutrition, or lack of medical care. The family and society suffer just as much when an individual is incapacitated or dies prematurely from the disease of affluence as when the causes relate to poverty.

What can the church do?

It can encourage its members to live Christian life styles, to become conscious of their stewardship obligations in relation to their bodies.

It can also preach the full gospel, the gospel that Christ proclaimed as He went about not only teaching but also taking care of people's physical needs. Jesus loved people in their totality. If Jesus says anything to the church of today, He speaks of the need for Christians to love all those who have needs—physical, as well as spiritual—and to attempt to minister to them as He did.

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Thomas W. Klewin is a retired United States Air Force chaplain, professional writer, and former health educator. He makes his home in Crapaud, Prince Edward Island, Canada.

July 1979

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