Thursday, March 31, 2005
PSOMETHING to think about
FORGERS.14.8-11. It seemed fitting to wait till the calm after the storm to offer up some observations about the national melodrama of the past few weeks.
A few catalysts for these observations:
1. A right-leaning Philadelphia talk show host who expressed, if not surprise, the scent of potential controversy surrounding Laura Bush's statement that she and her husband have living wills.
2. The strident claim of many pro-lifers that the court's decision was synonymous with an execution and the corollary claim that murderers on death row receive more consideration for their rights than the victim in this case.
3. The determination of so many Christians -- including, ironically enough, the Pope, now on a feeding tube himself -- that life must be extended by every means possible, to the last possible nanosecond.
I'm not taking up a sword here to question the sincerity of the participants on all sides of this debate. Rather, I'm interested in highlighting what has been, to me, an ironic but almost invisible backdrop to the proceedings. Let's consider the catalysts one by one.
Why should there be any conflict whatsoever between the Bush's Christian pro-life faith and the fact that they have drawn up living wills? Not to do so would be the same as saying that every single life must be extended as long as possible by even the most artificial and technological means. And in using the term "life" note that we are implicitly defining it as the continuing heartbeat and respiration of the human body. How is this definition consistent with the Christian emphasis on the soul as the true life which is housed in the flesh? At every turn, the Christian faith enjoins its followers to defy the demands of the flesh on behalf of the good of the soul. And is not the central act of the Christian drama that Christ consented willingly to the death of the flesh in order to demonstrate the separateness and deathlessness of the soul?
If all must do everything possible to extend the life of the physical body regardless, then every act of sacrifice unto death by mothers, fathers, soldiers, firemen, and other altruists and martyrs automatically becomes a sin. Our Christian duty is reduced to the mission of subsisting in whatever form for as long as possible. This means, among other things, that Christians had better revise their views about the morality of stem cell research. And they'd better cast away that old chapter of Ecclesiastes which begins, "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: (2) A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted." Perhaps they'd also be well advised to acknowledge Christ's sin on the cross when he declared, with evident deliberate intent, "It is finished," and "I commend unto thy hands my spirit." In short, Christian life is about breathing and nothing else.
Catalyst number two. The execution analogy and its legal corollary are as flawed as they are belabored. Imagine that a state or federal court had the power to sentence you to this fate: you are to be confined to a bed for the rest of your natural days, so drugged or otherwise incapacitated that you cannot see clearly enough to read or watch television, cannot speak coherently to those around you, and cannot control your body sufficiently to wash yourself or open or close your hands unaided. (Those of you who have some imagination might try this exercise in your own bedrooms for two hours or so -- no radio, no TV, no speaking aloud; then, if you wish to experience a real possibility of this sentence, subtract your own consciousness from the experience.) No court could escape the immediate overturning of such a sentence, which is "cruel and unusual punishment" by any definition. How, then, can the canceling of such a sentence equal an execution, and how can its indefinite continuation represent any kind of victory? How might the pro-lifers have celebrated the restoration of the feeding tube? How much would the party have been enjoyed by the guest of honor?
The Pope. How to interpret his determination to stay "alive" by any and all available means? Has he expanded his convictions about contraception, abortion, and the death penalty so far that he too has conflated the life of the soul with the life of the body? It seems impudent to think so. A more obvious explanation is that in his own case, he deems his continuing physical travails a kind of suffering which he is not permitted to escape through an easy death. But if he is putting himself on the cross, is he likewise condemning all Christians to the same fate? And if he is, where on the scale of compassion does that bit of theology put those who fought so hard to maintain the dutiful Christian "suffering" of Terry Schiavo?
I'm not saying that I have all the answers or that all the arguments above are incontrovertible. What I will say is that it's difficult to find a common thread among the three catalysts that is consistent with Christianity as I have traditionally understood it. The common thread I do perceive is decidedly unchristian -- namely, a deep, irrational, and overwhelmingly terrifying fear of death. That's what I hear in the raised voices of those who have fought so long and hard for an empty objective.
None of us, I'm convinced, would argue that technology is always the handmaiden of the Lord. We have seen it used for good and ill. Not everything that is possible to the hand of man is necessarily a manifestation of the will of God. (Revisit the gas chambers of Krupp.) If we claim to be Christian, we are simultaneously professing belief in the life of the soul everlasting, the beneficence of the will of God, the timelessness of eternity, and the infinite balm of knowing that when the flesh has distintegrated to ash, the spirit lives on.
All I ask is this: if you are one of the ones who has been so charged up emotionally about this case that you regard the death of Terry Schiavo as an unspeakable tragedy, please take a moment to look death squarely in the face. It is coming for all of us. Our faith is supposed to make us unafraid. Where do you stand?
And while I'm at it, I'll ask one more thing. What if the entire morality play whose catastrophe has just occurred is itself the will of God? What if this pitiful circumstance has become a circus for the express purpose of requiring all of us to consider anew our deepest beliefs about the nature of life and the relationship between the flesh and the spirit? In that event, there is real peace in the outcome. Terry Schiavo has served as a direct instrument of God, and whichever way the courts might have decided, the divine intention fulfilled its inevitable end, Terry Schiavo is now enfolded in the arms of her maker, and all of us -- if we will continue to think just a bit longer -- may be the wiser for the experience.