Yesterday, I wrote about some recent developments in the “Right to Die” movement, noting my personal experience with difficult deaths, reviewing some of the arguments used in the current movement, and highlighting some unsettling developments in countries like the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been practiced for some time. I also noted some fairly settled Christian opposition to euthanasia, but I left off exploring the roots of such an opposition until now.
Life is a Gift of God
The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics gives a good summary of some of the pragmatic reasons Christians give in opposing assisted suicide and voluntary active euthanasia. It notes that Christians often make non-religious arguments against the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide:
Proponents of legal prohibition frequently appeal to the probable negative consequences of permissive laws, including the difficulty of drawing and maintaining defensible lines; the dangers of abuse, especially because modern societies often devalue the elderly and inadequately protect vulnerable person; the risks of a “slippery slope”; and the danger of creating or extending the “culture of death” described in Evangelium vitae. Additionally, in the USA, which has not yet achieved universal access to basic health care, proponents of the traditional legal prohibition contend that it would be a major mistake to establish a legal right to assisted suicide before establishing and implementing a legal right to health care (298).
All of these arguments are important, and, as a means of speaking in the public square, they make sense. But among Christians, I hope our conversations turn on more than our fears and that our convictions stem from facing something greater than the dangers outlined above.
Perhaps it would be best to begin with a common phrase, and unpack it a bit. Christians often say that life is sacred. What does that mean?
In staking out the claim that life is sacred, we are first recognizing that life is mysterious. It does not arise from anything in our control. Etymologically, the term “sacred” means to be consecrated or set apart, to be holy and held in special regard by God. We are not, in other words, self-generated, and, while our parents may provide the circumstances and the matter for our creation, they do not animate us and make us live. We are independent beings, mysteriously granted life, growing and changing, and as human beings, the Christian traditions speaks of how we are capable of displaying the image and character of the one who created us.
As image-bearers, the arc of Scripture reminds us of the importance of the life we’ve been given: a life intended to be quickened by joy in God’s creation, which is then offered back up in the form of worship and praise.
Part of recognizing the gifted nature of our lives entails recognizing the limits of our own control. This is not an argument for oppression or control by others, but rather a call for a recognition of actual and legitimate limits. While it’s true that we have been expanding the horizons of those limits with our technology for millennia, some elements of those limits are not to be thrown off, else we risk losing the very definition of our humanity.
It is precisely out of such a concern that Wendell Berry writes the opening to his book Life is a Miracle, commenting on King Lear.
The whole play is about Kindness, both in the usual sense of truth-to-kind, naturalness, or knowing the limits of our specifically human nature. But this issue is dealt with most explicitly in an episode […] in which the Earl of Gloucester is recalled from despair so that he may die in his full humanity. (Life is a Miracle, p. 4)
And what does this full humanity entail? The recognition that life is a gift:
Gloucester, dismayed to find himself still alive, attempts to refuse help: “Away, and let me die” (IV, vi, 48).
And then Edgar, after an interval of several lines in which he represents himself as a stranger, speaks the filial (and fatherly) line about which my thoughts have gathered:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.
(IV, vi, 55)
This is the line that calls Gloucester back — out of hubris, and the damage and despair that invariably follow — into the properly subordinated human life of grief and joy, where change and redemption are possible (5).
For Christians, the recognition of limits should be more comforting than frustrating.
We have been called out and made strange
Although human life is sacred, death is part of the earthly cycle of life. There is a “time to be born and a time to die” (Eccl. 3:2). The resurrection of Jesus Christ transforms death into a transition to eternal life: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15:21).
Despite this hope, it is morally wrong and unacceptable to take a human life in order to relieve the suffering caused by incurable illness. This would include the intentional shortening of another person’s life by the use of a lethal dose of medication or poison, the use of lethal weapons, homicidal acts, and other forms of active euthanasia.
I am even more thankful for these principles when I consider the way the entry on euthanasia in the Cambridge Companion ends,
Finally … any discussion of Christian views is too limited if it attends only to official church statements — or even major theological statements — and neglects the perspectives of lay Christians, many [perhaps even a majority] of whom support legalisation of assisted suicide and of voluntary active euthanasia in some cases (Cambridge Companion, p. 298, emphasis added).
I understand why some, Christians included, may be drawn to euthanasia. From a certain angle, given certain assumptions, it seems humane. But I do not believe it is suitably human. In the end, the desire not to be a burden to others may lead us to deprive family and community of the opportunity to be family and community, while the desire to shorten suffering may actually rest, once again, on a fumbling for some measure of control over a situation that leaves us feeling impotent, unable to lend aid to a loved one. But the desire to alleviate suffering, while praiseworthy, should never trump the desire to live, either as one leading a human life in all its facets until natural death, or as a member of a community, showing compassion and truly suffering with others, the literal meaning of the word.
The great Anglican moralist and Bishop, Jeremy Taylor, in his famous work Holy Dying gives a somber analysis of our lives on this earth, saying “You can go no whither but you tread upon a dead man’s bones.” Death awaits us all, short of our Lord’s Advent. It is, as some have pointed out, always an interruption. It is, despite its ubiquity, mysterious and unknown. Often it is painful. And yet, we believe, as Christians, that we do not endure it alone. Just as Christ lived, so he died. And just as he now lives, so we will live, even though we die. That presence and the support of the Christian community should walk us all through that unknown door when the time comes. But our time is not to be determined by our hand. In the end, death is universal, and it is sometimes painful. The appropriate response to both, in our tradition, is presence, as witnesses to the divine presence.
It may be that opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia will come to mark Christians out as strange, over against a culture that could soon come to embrace it overwhelmingly. Stanley Hauerwas once predicted that in 100 years Christians may be known as those odd people who don’t kill their children or their elderly. Should society go that direction — and I pray fervently that it does not — I take comfort in the fact that one of our tasks, both individually and corporately, is to serve as witnesses: witnesses of God’s love and witnesses of what it means to lead a fully human life as embodied by our Lord Jesus, pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
If the Church is able to maintain opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia, against the culture, it will only highlight our strangeness. There is an upside to being thought odd that I do not want to fail to mention. If we are thought strange by the culture — which all Christians will be, no matter how ostensibly liberal or conservative they are by societal standards — then it may provide the separation we need to help us differentiate between the gospel and our culture, leading the way to greater faithfulness.
Several times in recent months I have found myself at the bedside of people as they were dying. For some reason, more often than in the past, I found myself gravitating toward Psalm 139, and reading portions of it to them. To verses 1-11, suggested in the burial service of The Book of Common Prayer, I add verses 12-17. I think they beautifully convey the limitations of our human nature, reminding us that our lives are gifts, that God is with us, and that pain and despair in life, and even the darkness of death, are not enough to separate us from the love of God.
Psalm 139 Domine, probasti
With these words in mind, may the Church be a people able to say to those seeking an end to their lives, “Speak yet again.”