"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

A “right” to Die?

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This is a massive ramble for tomorrow’s preaching that I need to reduce by over half..but I’ll post it in total (very very rough text) in the event that I don’t get the actual text done until late, late tonight.

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

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 dialogue.  It’s worth spending part of our time today speaking about preaching, and what it really means within a Christian community.  I’ve recently realized that even the Church’s perspective on this undertaking has been misled by cultural assumptions.  So a word on preaching to start.  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, at it’s core expounding on the Word of God.  This is a risky activity, because if I lead someone astray by my feeble attempts to illuminate a Gospel that needs no illumination, that burden rests on my soul.  So, my focus every time I presume to step up here is to speak about our corporate life as the Body of Christ…and don’t ever presume that I am doing so to forward a personal political perspective.  For me to abuse this place of privileged speech would place my soul at risk.  // 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 one that exists in the political realm, but rather in the supernatural realm.

I’m starting with this because I’ve realized that one of the facets of public discourse in the present age is that dialogue is very quickly politicized.  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 like everyone else, 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.  Closely on the heels of that politicization of public discourse is a thought that still dogs us, one I trace back to the 19th century utopianism movement that is at the core of social liberalism: that if we can just get the public policy right, we will bring about heaven on earth.  There are few thoughts in the post-modern world that so directly contradict the Gospel message as the one that says we will eventually get it right, and the swords will fall into plowshares of their own accord.

This reflects what Malcolm Muggeridge said about human depravity, “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 yet that message is one that clearly comes to us through the Gospel, and I would argue needs to be at the core of a personal faith life.  By contrast, even within the church, our usual mode of thinking about ourselves is, you know, I’m really not that bad a person…there are far worse people out there…and so we convince ourselves of our fundamental goodness in spite of such a thing being contrary to experience, and more importantly contrary to the Gospel.

The reason I start from this point, is what I’ve been struggling with for the past few months, is the question of medically-available euthanasia…or as it used to be called before the re-branding of the movement, physician-assisted suicide.

Paul begins Galatians with a discourse about his authority to speak of the Gospel, and how it is not man’s gospel, but the revelation of Jesus Christ.  If you heard some echoes of what I started with in describing what preaching is fundamentally about, you would be hearing me clearly.  Like Paul, whenever someone stands before a community in worship and speaks of the Gospel, we step into the same authority that Paul claims.  And the burden of a message contrary to the Gospel also rests on the preacher’s shoulders, which is the reason that anyone who stands before a community to step into those shoes fundamentally does so in fear and trembling.

I preached once at a small church in the country.  I can’t even recall the message, but I remember it was a challenging one for me.  There’s an old adage that every sermon is about first converting the preacher’s heart, and most of the messages God entrusts to my frail pen and voice are ones that are intended to challenge me.  So, at the end of the service one of the congregation came up to me and said, “I’m not sure if I agree with your message.”  When I relied to her, “I’m not sure I agreed with it either.” She stopped dead in her tracks, as I had clearly derailed the careful contrary arguments that she had marshalled to engage me with.  She asked me somewhat incredulously, “What do you mean…you’re not sure you agree with what you just preached?”  And perhaps this is the first important thing I needed to speak of today is what exactly this thing called preaching really means…and fits with exactly the message that Paul is providing to the Galatians.  This has little to do with me as a person.

I explained to the sermon critic that the words that flow from a sermon are, in most cases, not really my words.  If you read my blog, there are articles I’ve written which are entirely my creation – a number about Metis heritage, some about indigenous law and court cases, some about science and religion.  The sermons fall into a very different category, and I hesitate to claim the same degree of creative authority over the content of a sermon.  Preaching is a fundamentally prophetic act, that’s doubly so for me because of my particular spiritual gifts.  Prophetic acts are fundamentally the realm of God’s independent action…which you hear clearly in the Gospel today.  After the widow’s son is raised the people declare Jesus a great prophet and glorify God.  It is not about Jesus the man, as much as it is about God’s prophetic presence breaking through into the midst of the world.  So too is the act of preaching, a very high calling, but one that fills me with fear and trembling.

So, what I told the parish sermon critic was that my experience of the sermon preparation processes is that the words and the sources don’t flow from my skill, but from a divine muse that blesses me with things that I do not believe I would encounter on my own intellect.  So, I’m always happy to engage in dialogue on what I’ve preached, but please don’t approach that encounter as seeking to argue me out of a carefully crafted personal position because I will probably tell you that I’m as challenged as you with some of the things that are said.  That is the fundamental call of anyone who undertakes a prophetic act, for we do not speak about the thoughts of humankind, but rather the thoughts of God, as challenging as those may be.  The goal of this activity is ultimately to transform, but maybe principally to get us thinking about key issues in a theological framework as opposed to a political, emotional or sociological framework.

Now what started me down this road was the debate (or lack of debate) in Parliament on the question of this “right to die” legislation.  As an ethicist I’ve said before that this question is likely the defining one of this era, and it troubles me to see that issues of rights being asserted without any real engagement with some of 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 not infrequently 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 was 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 the compassionate thing for Jesus to do was to send the possessed man into the lake to drown?  I think this points to one of the great lies of our post-modern age, the myth of the quick fix.  We seek quick fixes for everything now, from having smart phones to public WiFi to our engagement with the medical profession, to seeking justice through the courts.  When was the last time you heard someone in the role of victim with the courts say after the trial that they were satisfied with the verdict?  No, we demand justice, and the justice we demand is justice as we conceive it as an individual.  That our concept might be in diametric opposition to many others does not strike us as a problem, because we are used to holding mutually exclusive positions as simultaneously valid and worthwhile.  Jesus, however, does not allow us that sort of latitude in our thought.  The “right to die” movement is in fundamental ways 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 thought process with Jesus?  It is not possible because the Gospel proclaims a different message: each person is of infinite worth in the Father’s eyes, and each life is of infinite value.  To the idea of infinite self-determination we can look to the example of the adulterous woman.  Jesus intervenes to prevent her stoning by saying, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  (John 8)  Now the modern church often snips off the final command from Jesus, as this story is held up as an example of Jesus’ infinite compassion but also as one of self-determination.  The adulterous woman is justified in Jesus’ treatment of her, which is nothing short of a total misreading of the passage, as it ends with the command, “go forth and sin no more”.  While lifting her up, Jesus also acknowledges that she is fundamentally in need of repentance, a change in the direction of what she had been living.

The most troubling aspect of the “right to die” movement for me is the fundamental misunderstanding of the place of suffering, for this too is an aspect of post-modern thought that challenges Jesus directly.  Our society sees no benefit in suffering, suffering (like death), is to be eliminated, dispensed with as something with no possible use in the world other than harm.  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.  There are movements in Christianity that have sought to downplay that aspect, mostly because the idea of suffering being a necessary part of the equation is a hateful thought to an enlightened modern mind.   An article by law profession 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, in this article titled “Three Gifts for Hard Times – What I’ve learned as life has taken a turn for what most people think is the worst”:

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 early encounter with chronic pain.  I’m usually challenged on this point because one of the ways you can undercut my comments about suffering is by asserting I really don’t understand what it’s like to live with unremitting pain.  Well, I have not experienced the intense pain of cancer, but I have for some 17 years now, lived with what is usually called, ‘chronic non-malignant pain’.  Stuntz starts his article by describing this experience as “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 I crashed and burned under the stress, all because of that chronic pain.  You might say I’ve been working on my doctorate around the question of suffering, because it has a personal reality for me that is both intimate and immediate.  When I engage the question of suffering, this is not an abstract theological concept for me.

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” movement, because to assert that there are circumstances where the taking of our own life at our discretion is to supplant God’s ability to act.  It is, in fact, to place our discretion superior to God’s ability to act.  His second point:

2. 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.

Two facts give rise to that conclusion. First, Jesus is beautiful as well as good. Second, suffering is ugly as well as painful. Talk to those who suffer medical conditions like mine and you’ll hear this refrain: Even the best-hidden forms of pain and disease have a reality that is almost tactile, as though one could touch or taste them. And those conditions are foul, like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard or the smell of a cornered skunk. Some days, I feel as if I were wearing clothes soaked in sewage.”  But, in light of that physical reality, Jesus’ existence makes even the clothes soaked in sewage beautiful. “God’s Son did something similar by taking physical pain on his divine yet still-human person. He did not render pain itself beautiful. But his suffering made the enterprise of living with pain and illness larger and better than it had been before. He elevates all he touches. Just as his years of carpentry in Joseph’s shop lend dignity and value to all honest work, so too the pain he bore lends dignity and value to every pain-filled day human beings live.”

3. 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…In the Bible, remembrance usually 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.”

Job understood the concept. Speaking with God about what would follow his own death, Job utters these words: “You will call and I will answer you; you will long for the creature your hands have made. Surely then you will count my steps but not keep track of my sin” (14:15-16). Notice how memory and longing are fused. Job longs to be free of his many pains, which occupy his mind like a sea of unwanted memories. God longs for relationship with Job, and Job knows it: hence, his belief that the Lord of the universe remembers each of his steps. He is the Lover who will not rest until his arms enfold the beloved. To Job, the curses Satan has sent his way are a mighty mountain that cannot be climbed, an enemy army that cannot be beaten. In the shadow of God’s love, those curses are at once puny and powerless.”

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 the same action by sinful man…idolatry, placing the worship of ourselves above the right worship of God.

I want to cover one last point in this debate that is never spoken about, at least to my knowledge…and that is the creation of greater suffering through the act of relieving one individual’s suffering.  The family members upon whom that decision ultimately rests rarely walk away from a decision to take the life of a loved one without some burden of shame.  This was something I saw clearly in my chaplaincy rotation even with discussions around do not resuscitate – DNR – orders that we would encourage family members to consider and sign.  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.  You see, even in the secular world of non-believers there is this strong human principle about not taking life, and even in situations where it was the right thing to do, family members would be racked with guilt about the decision to sign a DNR order.  Now, let’s recontextualize that into a situation where the medical staff are asking a family to make the literal decision to actively remove life.  I can’t imagine the situation I would have to face as a chaplain, let alone what the family would be left with.

The second aspect that I never really hear engaged is the possible harm done to physicians in extending the spectrum of care to include active removal of life.  I have heard words from both sides of the debate from physicians, but have not heard a theological encounter with the question of what that expectation might do for them spiritually.  One of the main activities of the military in training soldiers is focused on removing that deeply held moral restriction about killing, and I wonder if making such a thing licit legally and from a professional practice standpoint will allow physicians to undertake those actions without a burden on their souls.  This I think a key part of any discussion, but it is a discussion that can only arise out of the faith-based context because the secular approach would reject the presence of the soul as a starting point in the discussion.

Now, what has changed culturally to permit this discussion in the first place is a real loss in any idea of what community means.  So the discussion doesn’t engage questions like the impact on family members or the medical profession because the highest value celebrated in our secular culture is the right of the individual to self-determine.  We don’t in those discussions every entertain the question of what our right to self-determine might have on others, and when we do it is invariably to dismiss the other’s concerns as being fundamentally flawed and therefore beneath our right to set our direction in all aspects of our lives.

Sebastian Junger has worked through this issue in his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.  He is taking some heat from veteran’s groups because he is suggesting that the high rates of PTSD we’re seeing in veterans today is really a symptom of the lack of connectedness in our culture.  So the veteran leaves the military tribe, and enters a civilian reality of almost complete disconnectedness.  This is a fascinating point that leads me to reflect on the transition in experience between World War II and our time in Afghanistan.  The soldiers who entered into the combat experience in the Second World War in many cases were there for literal years in combat…1942 to 1945 for certain, for air and navy much longer periods and many didn’t see their families for that entire period.  Why was there not rampant PTSD in that context?  I suspect part of the reason was the tribe of community extended beyond the military, so the veteran returned to church community, family community, legion community.  We now see soldiers returning home after a tour of a few months of much lower intensity combat (in some cases) with much higher rates of PTSD.  Junger suggests this is due to the almost total loss of the tribe outside of organizations like the military, so the soldier is re-traumatized upon leaving the military and failing to find any place to be in community.  I would be curious to look at the PTSD rates between veterans with strong ties to a church community, versus those who do not have such a tie.

Junger quotes an anthropologist colleague who cautions him that his hypothesis that the 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) What is really missing as an integral part of our society is the opportunity to act selflessly for others on a broad scale.  It is true there are exceptions, which we’ve seen in the past few months with Syrian refugees and the Ft McMurray evacuation, but the reality is that the involvement of selfless outsiders in those situations is not anywhere near as wide-spread as the media might lead us to believe.  In any event the lack of selfless behaviour on a routine daily basis far eclipses the extraordinary events of recent history…one only has to drive on Edmonton roads to observe the large percentage of people that live only for themselves. Our secular society is antihuman. Think about that.

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 ever encountered, and Vanier does this without mentioning God by name at any point…in fact the only person who mentions faith is Carol Off, the interviewer. She asks him 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, we need help, we need good doctors, we need the old people’s homes; where there’s caring and where there’re not just one or two nurses or helpers looking after too many people and nobody has time to listen to 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. You see, the extraordinary thing here in L’Arche is that so many people with disabilities — they bring forth within us a capacity to love and to be in communion with one another, and to have fun.

[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.

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 3:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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