"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

A “Right” to Die – Final Version

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Editorial note: I added some material extemporaneously after the first delivery.  It is important to emphasize that Jesus’ propitiation on the cross included the redemption of all of creation, including suffering.  Any suggestion that Jesus did not physically suffer on the cross, and that His experience was only spiritual in nature is to cross into the realm of heresy.  I guess you can believe whatever you want, but what is not open to you is to corrupt the position of Christian theologians for the past 2,000 to fit your personal belief system.

If you want to believe in a purely spiritual event on the cross, at least be honest enough to acknowledge that you’re departing from usual teaching (which is the definition of heresy, wrong teaching).

The consequences of such a stance are quite serious, apart from the wrong belief aspect.  If physical and emotional suffering was not redeemed by Jesus, then what do you say to anyone with a chronic health condition (like me)?  I can’t imagine saying to someone who is wrestling with chronic depression or bipolar disorder that Jesus knows nothing of their pain because he never physically suffered.

It also raised for me the question of anger within the worshiping community.  My observation has been that when I get angry at a message I’m hearing about faith, it is often because the Word is coming at me from a direction that highlights some area of serious sin in my life.  So anger, for me, is a red flag for things that I need to pray through and seek healing.  Anger expressed toward a brother or sister in the faith with which you are in disagreement, is almost never a holy undertaking.

BTW, the heresy associated with removing Jesus’ suffering on the cross is called Docetism.  At it’s core is the belief that Jesus really only appeared to be human, but was in reality only divine.  The suffering that people saw was only the image of suffering, but there wasn’t any real suffering in behind the image.  This was rejected by early Christians as it denied them the ability to rejoice in their suffering (as Jesus said repeatedly in the Gospels would be what was in store for the disciples). The Nicene Creed completely refutes the heresy.  Romans 5:3 and Col 1:24, James 1:2-4.  Docetism is strongly present in Islam, who have taught that Jesus escaped the cross.  This is an escapist heresy, that seeks to spiritualize the cross and to remove from it anything of real importance for we who dwell within the creation.

The cruelty of docetism is that it leaves us bereft of true life, peace, fellowship, endurance, character, hope and God’s comforter (cf FitzSimons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy).


Proper 5C Pentecost 3, June 5, 2016, Galatians 1:11-24, Psalm 30, Luke 7:11-17 (raising of the widow’s son), SJE Edmonton ©2016

Pray.  I’m going to engage a difficult topic today, and I need to begin this declaration of God’s Word with a clear disclaimer: this is not a political discourse.  I’ve recently realized that even the Church’s perspective on preaching has been misled by cultural assumptions.  If you hear my words and immediately attempt to slot them into a framework that understands what is being said as existing somewhere on a political spectrum, you are not clearly hearing what is being said.  The act of preaching involves the homilist engaging the texts set for that week, and engaging them in a context that reflects our contemporary situation.  It is a fundamentally sacramental activity, a fundamentally prophetic activity and a risky activity.  If I twist the message to suit my needs, and do so using the Gospel to support me, that places my soul at some risk.  A prophetic activity means these words are about God, and not at all about me.  // Now, that does not mean that the Word of God will not challenge our deepest personal convictions, including our political convictions…but that the activity we are all about here right now is not political or social but rather supernatural.

I’m not sure that understanding of preaching is that common today, as many will see the preacher as just one more voice in the public commons seeking to impose her power on others.  Any statement that even remotely engages some facet of, for example, Clinton versus Trump; or Trudeau versus Harper is immediately contextualized in the political arena.  While I have political views what I do in my role as a minister of the Gospel has little to do with those, and everything to do with my obedience to a Gospel that continuously re-convicts me of my fundamental inability to be a good person by my own merits.  This illumines another lie of the word that comes to us courtesy of the Enlightenment: if we can just get the public policy right, we will bring about heaven on earth, and the swords will fall into plowshares of their own accord.  There are few thoughts in the post-modern world that so directly contradict the Gospel message.  Malcolm Muggeridge described human depravity in this way, “The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”  We do not like to think of ourselves as depraved and our usual mode of thinking even in the church is, you know, I’m really not that bad a person.

The question on my heart concerns medically-available euthanasia…or as it used to be called before the re-branding of the movement, physician-assisted suicide.  What started me down this road was the debate (or lack of debate) in Parliament on the question of this “right to die” legislation.  It troubles me to see that there is much discussion about legal rights without any real engagement with the deeper issues.  When I read the Gospel this week, the raising of the widow’s son from the dead by Jesus, the first thought that struck me had to do with the compassion of Jesus.  The doctor-assisted suicide debate often invokes compassion, and sometimes from a Christian viewpoint, as one of the primary drivers.  Allowing someone a ‘dignified’ death is argued as being a fundamentally compassionate act.  So, when I read about the widow of Nain my first thought was, “If Jesus was so compassionate, why don’t we ever read about Him killing anyone out of that compassion?”  That question should sound shocking to you, as it certainly is to me.  I think, particularly if you are going to invoke Jesus as a supporter of physician-assisted suicide, it is something you need to figure out.  So, it started me on a path of prayer and reflection looking a number of these miraculous encounters between Jesus and the suffering and wondering why He didn’t offer death as an outcome.

The Gerasene demonic is a good example.  Here was a man intensely suffering, who had undoubtedly caused great harm to many others, who is freed of his possession at the cost of a herd of swine.  In the context of the public discourse of today on the question of “right” to death, would not a really compassionate Jesus send the possessed man into the lake to drown?  You see, that man would have carried with him the pain and burden of all he had done in his previous existence, which could have caused him no end of ongoing suffering.  How is freedom from demonic possession a good thing when that burden remains?  Now this sounds rather silly but it highlights that the “right to die” movement is really about a quick fix to the question of suffering, and the reason our culture supports the debate is because of this fundamental belief that each of us has full authority to self-determine on any matter, up to and including dictating to others the time and the manner of our death.  How do you resolve that very cultural-based thought process with Jesus?  Well, you can’t.  The Gospel proclaims a different message: each person is of infinite worth and each life is of infinite value and the question of who owns our lives is not one that is answered in our favour.

The most troubling aspect of the “right to die” movement for me is this fundamental misunderstanding of the place of suffering.  Our society sees no benefit in suffering, suffering (like death), is to be eliminated, dispensed with as something with no possible use.  For a Christian, this is very problematic, because the core of our faith circles around a uniquely Roman instrument of torture, and the death of the Son of God.  Law professor William Stuntz sets out this comment on Christian suffering as he was in the process of dying from cancer, which took his life two years later at the young age of 52:

“Such stories are common, yet widely misunderstood. Two misunderstandings are worth noting here. First, illness does not beget virtue. Cancer and chronic pain make me sick; they don’t make me good. I am who I was, only more diseased. Second, though I deserve every bad thing that has ever happened to me, those things didn’t happen because I deserve them. Life in a fallen world is more arbitrary than that. Plenty of people deserve better from life than I do, but get much worse. Some deserve worse and get much better. Something important follows: The question we are most prone to ask when hardship strikes—why me?—makes no sense. That question presupposes that pain, disease, and death are distributed according to moral merit. They aren’t. We live in a world in which innocent children starve while moral monsters prosper. We may see justice in the next life, but we see little of it in this one.”

Stuntz’s words are of particular interest to me because he starts by describing his earlier encounter with chronic pain.  I have not experienced the intense pain of cancer, but I have for some 17 years lived with what is usually called, ‘chronic non-malignant pain’.  Stuntz starts his article by describing his experience this way: “Living with chronic pain is like having an alarm clock taped to your ear with the volume turned up—and you can’t turn it down. You can’t run from it; the pain goes where you go and stays where you stay. Chronic pain is the unwelcome guest who will not leave when the party is over.” Yup, that’s my experience as well.  Chronic pain ended my military profession, and has arguably redirected me dramatically away from other vocational paths…the reason I’m not in full-time parish ministry is because the first time I tried that it ended within two years because of that chronic pain.  You might say I’ve been working on my doctorate around the question of suffering because it is not an abstract theological concept.

Now Stuntz concludes his article by providing three reasons why suffering, as with anything else under the sun, was redeemed by Jesus on the cross.

  1. God does not remove life’s curses, He redeems them. In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that life’s curses in God’s economy transform into blessings, even if it is a blessing that we cannot understand. This perspective is one that causes me great trouble with the “right to die” question because to assert that there are circumstances where the taking of our own life is to supplant God’s ability to act.  It is, in fact, to place our discretion superior to God’s ability to act.  Point two:
  1. God brings about a change in the character of suffering. The world sees suffering as the ultimate waste and therefore to be eliminated at any cost, up to and including death as a lesser evil in the face of suffering. Struntz describes this beautifully in reflecting upon his disease, and the impact of Jesus redeeming sacrifice on that reality:  “The second gift is often missed, because it lives in salvation’s shadow. Amazing as the greatest of all gifts is, God the Son does more than save sinners. Jesus’ life and death also change the character of suffering, give it dignity and weight and even, sometimes, a measure of beauty. Cancer and chronic pain remain ugly things, but the enterprise of living with them is not an ugly thing. God’s Son so decreed it when he gave himself up to torture and death.”
  2. God remembers those who suffer. Stuntz writes, “Our God remembers even his most forgettable children. But that memory is not the dry, lifeless thing we feel when one or another old friend comes to mind. More like the passion one feels at the sight of a lover. … The story sounds off because to us, remembrance merely means recall…[The biblical meaning of the word] combines two meanings: first, holding the one who is remembered close in the heart, and second, acting on the memory. When God repeatedly tells the people of Israel to remember that he brought them out of Egypt, he is saying much more than ‘get your history right.’ A better paraphrase would go like this: ‘Remember that I have loved you passionately. Remember that I have acted on that love. Hold tight to that memory, and act on it too.’ “ Remember that I love you.

And so, the act of asserting a “right to die” is, in a Christian context, something that is fundamentally contrary to an acknowledgement of God as the Lord of all.  To do so places our desires, our judgement, and our need for control above the Almighty, which in every time and place in Christian history is an idolatrous act, placing the worship of ourselves above the right worship of God.

Another undiscussed aspect is the question of additional suffering that is created by an individual’s decision to end their life.  The family members upon whom that decision ultimately rests rarely walk away from similar decisions without a burden. I saw this clearly in my chaplaincy rotation in discussions about do not resuscitate – DNR – orders with family members.  Even in an obviously terminal situation, where someone only had days to live, and withholding CPR or extraordinary means of life support was not only ethical but a holy undertaking, family members would struggle with the decision.  The question I was most often asked out of those situations was if they were not killing their family member.  Now extend that to a physician-assisted suicide situation.  Secondly, I am very troubled by the burden we may be placing on our physicians in extending the spectrum of care to include active removal of life.  Who is able to answer those deeply spiritual questions in a debate that has become purely about the law?

Part of what has permitted this discussion is the loss of real community in our secular society.  Sebastian Junger has worked through this issue in his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.  This is a look at community, and more particularly a look at how community has been lost in the United States.  It is equally fascinating and terrifying. Junger quotes an anthropologist friend who cautions him about his hypothesis that modern culture is deeply brutalizing to the human spirit…she says, “You’ll have to be prepared to say that we are not a good society – that we are an antihuman society…We are not good to each other.  Our tribalism extends to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents.  Our society is alienating, technical, cold and mystifying.  Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” (pp 93-4) This antihuman society is the one that is presently debating the question of doctor-assisted suicide.

The Christian response to the antihuman secular world, and the relation to physician-assisted suicide is brought forward with crystal clarity by Jean Vanier in a recent interview on the CBC radio show As It Happens.  This is one of the most beautiful accounts of the Gospel I have encountered.  The interviewer asks Vanier about people’s legal right to choose the time and place of their death, and he responds by noting that people go through periods of depression, fatigue and loneliness so we shouldn’t be too quick to say there is a legal right because, “They also have a legal right to be walked with, accompanied and helped.”  She next asks him about the challenge of a Charter of Rights that is based entirely on the rights of the individual and what advice he would give lawmakers.  Listen to Vanier’s response,

“I hear what you’re saying — that everybody is independent. Of course, we’re also all interdependent. We need all to be loved, in order to find the beauty of life. And of course, what we see here in all our communities of L’Arche. And people come to us maybe who are quite violent, who are in depression, but then they discover something. They discover that they’re loved. Lawmakers should also realize that the human being, we’re born in weakness, and we die in weakness. And that we’re all vulnerable. And that we all always need help. A society needs to encourage opening up our hearts to those who are weaker and more fragile.

…So the “something” in society that’s going wrong when we thinking all the time that people have to be perfectly independent, perfectly strong, where in reality, my God, we need each other, … There’s a fundamental sickness in our society. And how can we, little by little, discover this? To move from the I to the we — we are all fragile, we all need help, and yet at the same time we all have strengths.

[Then she asks Vanier if he could imagine ending his own life.]

It’s certainly a very personal question. And I would say no, I can’t see. But, you see, I have never lived intense pain. My own situation is that I lived in community, I’m with people, I know I’m loved, and I love people. I’ve comforted quite a lot of people in their deathbeds. And I can say here in L’Arche, we have become quite frequently friends of death. That can sound strange. But when people die here, we have a big celebration, and we talk about them. We have photos of them. And we laugh and we cry, you know, because even on their deathbeds, we can hold their hands, look into their eyes, and say, ‘I love you.’

I think that the last word has to be with Vanier as he cuts decisively to the heart of the question, that we have a fundamental sickness in our society where we focus obsessively on the I instead of the we, and in doing so ignore that the answer to many of societal ills is not electing finally the “right” political party, passing the “right” laws, but rather to return to an acknowledgement that we are fundamentally interrelated and in need of each other.  What we need most particularly is love, not surprisingly the focus of both great commandments.

This is the reason why, in encountering the widow of Nain, Jesus steps boldly out of the societal expectations to meet a fellow human in need.  He ignores the entire body of Jewish purity regulations, he ignores the very prevalent thought that the widow was probably getting what she deserved (the prosperity gospel is not a creation of the modern age), and steps into a situation where he was not even asked to act but intervened of his own initiative.  This is what showing compassion like Christ means in our present context, stepping into those places of fear and pain and suffering and to, as Vanier says, “think about a society where we’re more concerned for each other and trying to love each other and help each other.”  Amen

Sources:

“Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging” by Sebastian Junger.

Endearing Pain” by Colleen Peters out of Winnipeg, documenting the experience of a woman with progressive MS.  Particularly her reference to this article:

The first gift from Peters is a multitude of quotations she offers, that pointed me to this Christianity Today article from August 2009 by law professor William Stuntz. The full article is available here.

 

Darrell L Bock’s excellent commentary on Luke (one of my favourite commentaries) from the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the NT.

 

The Pulpit Fiction podcast (www.pulpitfiction.us).  Don’t agree with some of their assertions, but always appreciate their exegesis and engagement with the Scriptures.

 

One of the most Gospel-centric dialogues I’ve ever read, Jean Vanier’s interview with Carol Off on As It Happens around the question of doctor-assisted suicide May 31,2016.  Notice that Vanier does not ever mention God or Jesus, but keeps pointing back to his life in the L’Arche community as an answer to the questions Off is asking him.  Wow.  It’s also a powerful model of evangelism if you look at his responses.  http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-tuesday-edition-1.3609214/jean-vanier-founder-of-l-arche-urges-caution-on-doctor-assisted-dying-law-1.3609219

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Written by sameo416

June 4, 2016 at 6:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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