Terri Schiavo and the Politics of Mercy

Monday, March 21, 2005

When President Bush rushed dramatically back from Texas to sign Congressional legislation permitting the federal court to intervene in the now-celebrated case of Terry Schiavo, he spoke of “those whose lives depend on the mercy of others.” This is exactly the issue that the Crucifixion of Christ puts before us front and center, this Holy Week. For several years now, preaching, teaching and writing about the meaning of the Cross has led me more and more deeply into the ethical heart of cruciform faith: namely, the way that we treat those who are in our power—those who, as the President precisely put it, depend for their lives on the mercy of others.

The act of God in Christ, who emptied himself of his divine power (Philippians 2:7) and gave himself up to be betrayed into the hands of sinners (Matthew 26:45) is described numerous times in the Gospels, in Acts, and in Paul’s Epistles by the word paradidõmi, meaning “hand over, deliver up, give over.” To give just one example, Jesus says “You know that…the Son of man will be delivered up (paradidõmi) to be crucified” (Matthew 26:2). This word appears so frequently that we conclude it was a vital part of the very earliest testimony about the Lord’s death. The emphasis placed upon the word is significant. The suffering (passion) of Christ was at the hands of others to whom he had been delivered up. In other words, he was “given over” to the mercy of others, which of course turned out to be no mercy at all, but the very opposite of mercy.

This is our emblematic Story that gives shape to all Christian ethics. The Son of God, whose power to determine the destiny of others was undiminished even on the Cross (“today thou shalt be with me in Paradise”), could have not only saved himself but also could have brought his torturers to a speedy end. Instead, he yielded up that power and, instead, prayed for the redemption of the torturers (“Father, forgive them”). Therefore, a sign of the true disciple of Christ is the willingness to rethink all relationships having to do with power over others. God in Christ used his power over others, even the worst of the “others,” entirely for their salvation, not for their condemnation.

Therefore the question of power over others lies at the very center of Christian ethics. This striking use of words, “those whose lives depend upon the mercy of others,” puts the point exactly. Whenever another person is in our power, our identity as Christian disciples is put to its most important test. What seems missing from the concerns of the “pro-life” protesters are the policies of our nation with regard to such issues as capital punishment and the torture of prisoners held without access to civil liberties.

Karla Faye Tucker, the repentant murderer whose execution was carried out in Texas under then-Governor Bush in spite of a world-wide campaign for her life to be spared, said something striking in an interview. She said that she was not afraid to die, since she knew she was in the Lord’s care, but the thought of the last ride in a car with law enforcers oppressed her. She said, “You are in their power.” It is in that situation—when others are in our power—that our Christian faith is tested most clearly.

With regard to Terry Schiavo, two somewhat contradictory thoughts:

1. I wonder why her husband, who seems so hell-bent on letting Terry die, cannot just turn her over to her family members who want to continue caring for her. Maybe it’s the life insurance.
2. Allowing a loved one to go quietly into the nearer presence of the Lord when earthly hope is gone is the right decision for many Christian families.

To sum up this Rumination:
Many voices besides mine (but mostly not Christian voices, unfortunately) are saying that there is a disproportionate amount of attention being given to the issue of one life while other lives— prisoners by the hundreds held without trial or charges in Guantánamo and Iraq and Afghanistan, Iraqi civilians dead by the unnumbered thousands, Congolese now in their tens of thousands—are ignored. If American Christians were to raise a great stir about these things in the halls of Congress, what a difference it would make!

NOTE: If anyone wants to “plagiarize” any of my Ruminations, please go right ahead.

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