The Right to Die

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Ask Andrew 3: The Right to Die

Q: Given the current discussions on Right to Die legislation, does the United Church have a position on assisted suicide? If not, what does the Bible tell us?

This is a VERY topical question. I will will do my best to address it, but there is no way I can settle it.

The United Church does not have a position yet, but a committee is working on it. Because of the short timeline given by the Supreme Court for new legislation, the request for submissions to the Parliamentary committee was answered by the Moderator, the Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell. Her paper gives a good summary of many of the issues & ethical concerns involved.

The Bible gives us a complex understanding of life & death. It includes stories of people who took their own lives. They include:

Samson: who pulled down the building in which he was imprisoned, killing himself and the Philistines who held him captive. He is the last Judge of Israel, and often considered the least successful.

Saul & his Armour Bearer: Saul fell on his sword to avoid capture by the Philistines. His armour bearer fell on his sword when he realized Saul was dead. This was considered an honourable death for a soldier in many cultures, particularly for a commander facing defeat.

Judas Iscariot: who hanged himself after betraying Jesus. (That’s in Matthew’s Gospel. In Acts an alternate version has Judas dying by falling down and having his bowels burst out.)

There is no specific biblical prohibition on suicide, unless you count the commandment not to commit murder. Many do – this commandment is cited in the Roman Catholic catechism as the biblical basis for their opposition to suicide.

Another passage cited to oppose suicide is 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 where Paul writes: Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. This passage was really written to discourage Christians from visiting temple prostitutes, so using to discuss taking one’s own life is stretching the point.

But there is a general understanding in the Bible that suicide is sad. In the examples above it represents some kind of failure. It is also understood to be something that comes from extreme distress. Suicidal thoughts are expressed by Job, by Jeremiah and by Jonah (kind of makes you wonder if it’s best not to have a name starting with “J”). Additionally, in Acts Paul and Silas prevented their jail guard from falling on his sword when he thought all his prisoners had escaped.

Christianity has not always been vigorously anti-suicide. Martyrdom was praised for centuries, to the point where theology had to be developed to insist that Martyrdom was only real if you did not go seeking it. The Donatists were 4th & 5th Century Christians in North Africa who were fundamentalists forged in a violent age. They were known for actively seeking martyrdom. They understood that martyrs would to go straight to heaven through a “baptism of blood.” They were eventually declared heretics. I dread to think what would have happened if they’d had explosives: they might have gone after their oppressors as Christian suicide bombers.

By the 6th century suicide had been formally declared a sin, but it wasn’t until 1533 that suicides were denied Christian burial. By that time a harsh theology had been developed which declared that people who committed suicide could not enter heaven. Most churches have backed off from this extreme position.

A dominant Christian understanding has been that life is a gift from God which should only be removed by God. To take our own life is to claim the place of God; to claim that we have a better understanding of what is best for ourselves than God does.

In more modern terms, that can be re-phrased as a question of control: Do I control my life and death, or does God? And in practical terms: in this society, who speaks for God? Does anyone really have the authority to deny me death in the name of God, or morality, or law?

Our modern debate raises a number of complex issues:

1: Mental/Emotional Illness

We know that really distressed people do kill themselves. We can see the way it affects the people around them. Their loved ones can be very upset or deeply hurt. This has become really obvious in the rash of teenage suicides that have been reported across our culture, and most recently in dreadful numbers in First Nation communities.

We can see the lost potential, especially in lives ended at a young age. We have all heard stories about people who have been saved from suicide and who later expressed how happy they are to be alive. Most people will agree that if the distress a person is experiencing is temporary or treatable we have a duty to save them from their own self-destruction. With that comes the responsibility to address the reasons that a distressed person has for wanting death.

Beyond that, however, is the fact that not everyone who desires death is mentally ill. Some people want a better death than the death (or extended life) they are facing. That leaves us with the difficult problem of deciding what counts as a “good” reason to want to die.

2: Quality of life

We have become so good at keeping bodies alive that we have had to start considering the quality of the life we are extending. Many people make Do Not Resuscitate orders for their own care. Sometimes these choices distress loved ones, but generally the orders are considered permitting considered a natural death by stopping intervention. In the past such orders were not allowed: I have heard many stories of medical professionals who used to write “DWD” (Death With Dignity) in pencil on charts so a patient could be allowed to die without extreme measures being used to extend their lives. The the lettering “DWD” could be erased so no charges could be brought against the staff.

Quality of life is a particular issue for those with disabilities or who are facing debilitating illnesses. This question is central to our current debate. The Supreme Court ruled that since Suicide no longer a crime, and since certain people are physically unable to take their own lives, that such people being discriminated against under the law. They have the right to have someone help them die without criminal charges, and only doctors can be trusted to do it without undue suffering. (This is obviously a simplified explanation of the ruling)

3: Personal choice vs. our role as part of a greater group

The choice to die is very personal. It is often motivated by the feeling: “I can’t live like this” or “I would never want to live like that.” The first arises from the suffering the person is experiencing. The second involves planning ahead for when you decline into a state you’ve seen and don’t want for yourself: maybe because you see it as very undignified or painful.

The complication is: our lives are a web of relationships. Our deaths have a powerful impact on anyone who loves us under any circumstances. Modern thinking is very centred on individual rights, and our connection to others is not emphasized as much these days.

I would hope that anyone considering ending their own lives could have a clear sense of the other people that decision will affect. This is not to create guilt, but to remind them that they are not isolated.

4: Danger of potential abuse of powers

This is a big fear: that people who are “inconvenient” will be killed. This is not an unreasonable fear. We all know that the Nazis used Eugenics to justify legalized killing of people in institutional care with “undesirable” features. They killed thousands in the years before World War II began or any concentration camps were built. What we sometimes forget is that here in Canada Eugenics laws were used to justify the forced sterilization of “mental defectives.” This has been the subject of recent lawsuits, and the people affected were people of my generation. Before this became public knowledge I have had conversations with retired medical people who defended this policy, and used expressions like “if we let them breed they won’t be able to raise their children and the burden will fall to the taxpayer.”

This sort of abuse could certainly happen here in Canada. It already has. We are right to be concerned about the risk of a “slippery slope.”

There are more subtle concerns about abuse too. EG: that geedy family members might put pressure on a vulnerable or confused elder to sign the papers to end their own lives.

There is also concern about medical care providers in under-serviced areas being forced to help people die despite personal ethical objections. There is also concern for the opposite situation: medical professionals refusing to provide help in dying to someone who can’t afford to travel elsewhere for the service.

5: The problem of suffering

Wanting to help someone to end their suffering is often motivated by love. Over the years I have often heard comments about how we are kinder to our suffering pets than our suffering family members.

Christians have a complicated relationship with suffering. For those who hold to traditional theology, we have the belief that we are saved through the sufferings of Christ on the cross, a clear case where suffering was good. Along those lines, we have scriptural urgings to share the sufferings of Christ in certain letters.

Beyond that, but we have all those teachings of Christ where we are called to help others and serve others in their need. We have an entire theology that lifts up weakness over strength; that values lives that are not perfectly healthy, or perfectly beautiful, or perfectly whole. For many, the prospect of ending those lives contradicts those teachings.

In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul writes:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

The idea of the power of God being revealed through human weakness and imperfection is a powerful one in our tradition. Whole books have been written about people who have discovered profound truths by caring for those who couldn’t care for themselves, and who have been pushed into situations of self-sacrifice that they never thought they could manage. Other books have been written by (or about) those who have gone through Hell on earth and have come out the other side wiser and stronger as a result of refusing to give in to suffering. As perverse as it sounds, we have always tried to find the value in suffering.

(A teen at Knox remarked on this issue. She pointed out the way we turn others into reluctant examples and try to “learn lessons” from them, or “admire their courage,” when all they are doing is getting on with their lives. They don’t consider that they are suffering, and don’t need to hear our opinions about how hard their lives must be.)

Our relationship with suffering is complex. We don’t believe in seeking out suffering (okay, to be honest, some actually do: there is a Christian tradition of self-inflicted suffering. Most of us consider it really unhealthy and not justified by scripture). As I said, WE don’t believe in seeking suffering, but we recognize the role it can play in life. So the question becomes “how much suffering is too much?” And the further question: “do we only consider physical pain, or other kinds of suffering, including mental anguish?”

Where do we draw the line? Who has the right to draw the line for my life? Do I have the right to set limits for someone else?

As Christians we celebrate life, but we are also taught not to fear death. Our commitment to life is not absolute. At the same time, we recognize that the decision to end a life is profound, and must be considered seriously.

We do not live alone. Ideally, a decision to die should not be made alone.

May God grant us wisdom as we decide how to deal with this issue.

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