By Guy Brandon, 15 April 2015
‘The National Health Service is the closest thing the English have to a religion, with those who practise in it regarding themselves as a priesthood. This made it quite extraordinarily difficult to reform,’ wrote former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, in his memoirs. ‘For a bunch of laymen, who called themselves the Government, to presume to tell the priesthood that they must change their ways in any respect whatever, was clearly intolerable. And faced with a dispute between their priests and ministers, the public would have no hesitation in taking the part of the priesthood.’
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the NHS is shaping up to be a major electoral issue, with all of the main parties racing to convince voters that they will be the ones to secure its safe future. The Green Party have promised to ‘take back the NHS from the private sector’, adding a further £1.3 billion to the NHS budget to deal with the health costs of cold homes. Labour have presented the NHS as a key dividing line between themselves and the Conservatives, claiming that they are the only ones capable of saving it from being sold off and cut to pieces. The Lib Dems have pledged an £8 billion boost to NHS spending, with a guarantee for equal care for mental health patients. UKIP are promising a further £3 billion investment, as well as a series of measures to prevent ‘health tourism’. Can the Bible inform our approach to the NHS as voters and citizens?
What is health?
Firstly, our view of health is typically narrow. We consider ‘health’ to be the absence of anything wrong. We know that a lot of health issues are caused by lifestyle – too much stress, bad diet, drinking too much, not enough exercise – but we are reactive. We wait until something goes wrong, then we fix it, whether that means having an operation or prescribing drugs like antidepressants, statins to lower cholesterol, medication for high blood pressure, or long term painkillers. There are always emergencies, but in one very real sense, the NHS is there to maintain lifestyles that would otherwise be unsustainable. We view health as an afterthought, like a piece of antivirus software on the computer rather than part of the operating system. We consumerise and commoditise health, and the NHS is there to deliver what we want.
The Bible and health
The Bible’s view of health is much broader. It’s shalom: wellbeing, or health in every area of life – physical, emotional, spiritual, even financial. It permeates everything we do, in all the habits and structures of life.
Health is not viewed from an individual perspective, either. The impact of poor health is that it takes us out of relationship and out of community. It limits our ability to fulfil our responsibilities and it stops us taking part in all of the relationships that make for a meaningful life in community with other people.
Throwing money at the NHS might be a way to improve what it does do well. But there’s a risk that a strong NHS simply continues treating the symptoms, not addressing the causes. An integrated health policy – like the Greens’ approach to unsuitable housing, but extended throughout every area of life, including employment, education and welfare, to name a few – is more faithful to the biblical ideal of shalom and woven meaningfully throughout life, rather than a bolt-on extra that addresses the unintended consequences of deeper cultural problems.