Whose life is it? and whose death?

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Having just finished a longish blog post on “Resistance as a Christian Calling,” I thought I’d take a vacation. The New York Times had other plans. This morning–Sunday morning–the front page displays a color portrait of a man that stretches four out of six columns across the top of the paper. Headline: “The Death and Life of John Shields.” I thought at first that it would be an article about some little-known hero who needed to be celebrated for the contributions he’d made to humanity. Well, yes, he did indeed make contributions, but the sole reason that John Shields is blazoned across the front page is that he recently died by medically-assisted suicide. This is his fame and his chosen identity.

I have been thinking long and hard about this issue for years, but haven’t written about it. I thought I could leave it to the Roman Catholic Church, often so eloquent and authoritative about issues of human life. But this in-your-face treatment really stirred me up.  The reporter, Catherine Porter, makes a few attempts to portray ambiguity, but the overall treatment of the subject is enormously sympathetic. The headline itself, plus the placement of the six-page article and its outsize length, spoke volumes about the newspaper’s leanings. It’s no secret that I depend upon the Times and other top-notch papers and magazines, both on paper and online; the Times’ editorial decisions (as opposed to the actual editorials, which I ignore) are mostly defensible. This one, however, really shook me up. To me, it seems to signal a turn in the culture more radical than others–more so even than gender issues, more than cohabitation, more than planned out-of-wedlock births, more than surrogacy–all of which I find disturbing but to some extent understandable and not irrecoverable.  Assisted suicide is related to the discussions about abortion and, especially, the death penalty in certain ways having to do with the value of life in the sight of God. Assisted suicide, to me, seems to strike at all that has been commonly agreed upon and understood and even taken for granted (if not always observed) in a culture that still bears the marks of having originated in the Christian West.

I’m not going to engage the debate in detail. I’m going to address it from the perspective of the theme of Resistance.

First, however, I want to affirm in no uncertain terms that the problem of prolonged suffering and dying is a central one in this age of sophisticated medical technology. People are being kept alive in ways that would not have been possible in earlier times. Moreover, even with palliative and hospice care (highly desirable) there are many questions about how long a person should be expected to suffer. Concerns about extended periods of terminal dementia (quite possibly my own) will become more challenging than ever in coming years. As a person nearing 80, I think about these things all the time. I have never forgotten my uncle’s wife saying with great passion after his excruciating final weeks, “No one should have to endure what he went through.” I understand that, and the individual hard cases must be taken into account in any discussion. I would be hard pressed to insist that death should not be hastened–with morphine, for example–assuming that the primary motive was to relieve the patient’s pain.

The real question, though, for Christians, arises with the continual repetition of the phrase that the assisted death occurred “on his/her own terms.” This presents grave problems for understanding human values. The suggestion is that the afflicted person is an autonomous being. The Times article briefly alludes to the conflicted feelings of John Shield’s wife and daughter; one senses that there is much more to be said about that. I once presided at a funeral for a woman who had received a cancer diagnosis but was in remission and had no particularly distressing symptoms. Nevertheless, she asked for a lethal dose, and a local nurse provided it. I didn’t know any of this until after the funeral.  Her husband was unhappy about what she had done, and had not consented to it. As Christians, we believe that “no man is an island entire of itself” (John Donne) and that we are part of one another, whether living or dying. So the concept of taking command of Death “on one’s own terms” must be resisted on those grounds.For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself” (Romans 14:7)

The notion of meeting death “on one’s own terms” is problematic in any case. Many sufferers have welcomed death when it came, but the Christian attitude toward death is not one of simple acceptance. Death is “the last enemy,” wrote St Paul. When “Jesus wept” at the grave of Lazarus, as many interpreters have pointed out, those were not simply tears of grief, but the emotions of One who has drawn near to the annihilating power of Death and is preparing to confront it as a warrior in mortal combat. The suggestion that choosing one’s own terms amounts to a successful confrontation with Death trivializes the nature of Death as “the last enemy” (I Cor. 15:26). In such contexts I always think of Flannery O’Connor’s remark in one of her letters, complimenting Jackie Kennedy for her design of the funeral of JFK, which showed her sense of history and of  “what is owing to death.” (At the very least, we can be quietly thankful that Jackie’s own exit was not widely publicized as some sort of victory over death “on her own terms.”)

Another well-represented line of thinking appears in the Times article: “If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?” (Sue Rodriguez, ALS sufferer). I do not mean to dismiss this concern out of hand. But the Christian hears another voice: “That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ…(from the Heidelberg Catechism). “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” (I Cor. 6:19) “Whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8)

The “death ceremony” for John Shields two days before he took his own life was an informal liturgy informed by a particular teaching about what was happening. This factor should not be underestimated. It is hard not to feel that those present are being subtly pressured to regard John’s death as “a gift.” Participants praised John for his “courage,” and a grief counselor thanked him for “the gift you are giving us tonight.” When the doctor administering the fatal dose says that it is a gift, and that in giving this gift of death she “felt so good” about it, surely most people hearing such sentiments will wonder if something is wrong with them if they have misgivings (not to mention the dubious emphasis on how the doctor “felt.” The connection to “Dr. Feel-Good” is too tempting to resist.)

The Christian church has another narrative, but we must teach it to ourselves over and over repeatedly, or the world will run away with it altogether. For at least fifty years, the majority of clergy in the majority of congregations have allowed the church’s teaching about death and funerals to deteriorate, and have let the traditional burial service slip away in favor of any number of generic, syncretistic intrusions. Returning to the power of the Christian gospel in life and in death is not only an affirmation; as such, it is a form of resistance to the story that the secular spiritualists are telling us. My husband and I are preparing to put our funeral wishes on file with the church from which we will be buried. The list will include such things as the presence of the body in the church (covered with the church’s funeral pall), real pallbearers (not undertakers), a significant sermon about death and resurrection, strong hymns, no “eulogies,” and the conspicuous absence of the phrase “a celebration of the life of…” on the front page of the program. In the Book of Common Prayer, the service is called “The Burial of the Dead.” If that is too stark, a fine alternative is “A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.”

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