Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Lords of Life and Death

On Saturday November 1 a young girl committed suicide.  Brittany Maynard had been diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, and she was told that chances of beating the cancer were pretty much nil.  She suffered from seizures as her disease grew worse, and did not want to suffer anymore.  She therefore moved to Oregon where doctor-assisted suicide is legal, and killed herself by taking an overdose of barbiturates.  She was twenty-nine.  Her death kicked into overdrive an already active debate about the morality of such suicide.  Its proponents, of course, do not call it “suicide”.  The movement calls itself the “right-to-die” movement, and the state law under which Brittany killed herself is called the “Death with Dignity Act”.  No who hears Brittany’s story can fail to be moved by her suffering, and the first Christian response must be compassion for her and her family, and prayer.  It is a hard and heart-wrenching tale.  Nonetheless, as lawyers say, “hard cases make for bad law”, and personal compassion for Brittany and her family should not be allowed to pre-empt our duty to think about the morality of the movement which she championed.   We therefore ask:  How then should Orthodox Christians regard the right-to-die movement?  Is it something we should embrace, or should we regard it as yet another symptom of the creeping secularization of our western society?
            Certainly the advances of the right-to-die movement constitute a fundamental shift in how our civilization has regarded suicide.  Formerly those who had died by their own hand were not even allowed Christian burial in consecrated ground.  Most Orthodox now have rethought that prohibition (one jurisdiction has produced a liturgical rite for use in the case of suicides), but stigma still attaches to the choice.  Perhaps that is why Brittany contended that she was not going to commit suicide.  In an interview with People Magazine, she said, “For people to argue against this choice for sick people [of ending one’s own life] seems evil to me.  They try to mix it up with suicide and that’s really unfair, because there’s not a single part of me that wants to die.  But I am dying.” 
            It is true that Brittany did not want to die.  Rather, she wanted to live without cancer.  It was only when it became apparent that such an option was not open to her that she chose to kill herself.   But this is true of all suicides.  Take Robin Williams, for example.  I imagine that not a single part of him wanted to die.  He simply wanted to live without depression.  But when it became apparent to him that such an option was not open to him, he killed himself.  No suicide wants to die.  They choose suicide because they feel that they have no other option.  Living with depression for years became too difficult for Robin; living with advancing seizures for six months became too difficult for Brittany.  One can and should have compassion for both of them, but this does not mean that neither committed suicide.  If the right-to-die debate is to be fruitfully conducted, both sides must call things by their proper names.  This is a debate about the personal morality and cultural wisdom of allowing suicide.
            One group in North America has traditionally doubted the wisdom of allowing such doctor-assisted suicide— the handicapped and the elderly.  Currently most states do not allow for such legal suicide, but what if the present exception becomes the future rule?  What is such suicide becomes normalized and accepted by most people as one way of sensibly dealing with approaching death?  Some have warned about stepping into an abyss, for this would have far-reaching impact.  Currently our culture regards life as sacred and inviolable, so that no one may kill another person, however old and socially-useless they may appear, and however handicapped they may be.  A line has been drawn beyond which we may not go, and we cannot cross that line and kill someone before their time.  But if we erase that line and allow the terminally-ill to kill themselves, what about the elderly, as the prolongation of their lives becomes increasingly costly?  What about the disabled and handicapped, whose lives are judged to have less social utility than others?  Are they next?  In our current climate this is unthinkable, but that is only because the line still largely exists.  If the line is erased, the unthinkable will become thinkable very soon—especially as the cost of health care escalates.  Nothing personal, grandpa, but keeping you alive is becoming very expensive.
            For the Christian there is another consideration as well.  In past ages everyone accepted that God was the sole Lord of life and death.  It was by His will and permission that men lived or died.  In the poetic words of the Orthodox prayer uttered at Pentecost Vespers, almighty God was the “Maker of every nature of man, of that which is brought together and again put asunder, of life and of the end of life, of sojourning here and of translation there, the One who measures the years of life and sets the times of death”.  In our culture we now arrogate such lordship to ourselves.   By our own will and by our own untrammelled choice, we decide whether a baby in the womb will be born and live or be aborted and die.  We decide whether the terminally-ill should be cared for until death overtakes them or be killed with medical assistance.  We decide whether someone should be kept on life-support indefinitely or unplugged and left to die. 
Some choices of course are easier to make than others, but the cultural fact remains that we now consider that these choices are solely ours to make.  As a social-medical expert wrote in the Washington Post,  “We are beginning to focus on what patients want, on their right to self-determination.  And people are increasingly asking why anyone—the state, the medical profession, religious leaders—would presume to tell someone else that they must continue to die by inches, against their will.”  Note:  none can interfere with “what patients want” (now labelled “their right to self-determination”).  For anyone to tell a patient that they must continue to “die by inches” is denounced as “presumption”.  Does this “anyone” include God?  The very concept of submission to God’s will has been removed; everything now depends upon the will of the patient, the decision in the moment of the sovereign individual.  As Brittany wrote in her Facebook page,  “Today is the day I chosen to pass away in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer which has taken so much from me… but would have taken so much more.” 

Note:  Brittany passed away on that Saturday because that was the day she chose to pass away.   If Brittany’s online video campaign (which she has called “Compassion & Choices”) succeeds, we will become the Lords of life and death.  The invisible line protecting the weak (what Hamlet called God’s “canon against self-slaughter”) will have been erased, and all will be entirely dependent upon human wisdom for matters of life and death.  There are many, such as the handicapped and the elderly, who regard such a wisdom as far too fragile a foundation to bear such a weighty load.  Right now all eyes are on Brittany, a dear and beautiful young woman afflicted with a terrible disease.  But ultimately it is not about Brittany.  It is about the dangers to a society when its people arrogate to themselves ultimate moral authority.  History provides no support whatsoever for the view that that we can use that authority wisely.  With the tragic death of poor Brittany we take one step closer to the abyss.


In the Ancient Faith Radio blog No Other Foundation, the following piece was also published on this topic:

The Choices of Joni and Brittany

Catastrophes come in all shapes and sizes.  It came to Joni Eareckson one day on July 30, 1967.  While swimming in Chesapeake Bay, young Joni dove into the water, misjudging its depth.  That water was shallower than she thought, and she struck her head, suffering a catastrophic fracture to her back and paralyzing her from the shoulders down.  She was just seventeen years old.  She then spent two long years in rehabilitation, during which she experienced anger, depression, and suicidal thoughts.  She remains in a wheel-chair to this day. 
 Catastrophe came to Brittany Maynard on New Year’s Day of this year.  Shortly after her marriage on 2013, she began to have extremely painful headaches.  On this January 1 doctors gave her the news that she had terminal brain cancer.  They estimated she had about six months to live.  She was just twenty-nine years old.
  It is difficult to compare catastrophes.  The cases of the two women are not at all the same.  Joni suffered her disaster when she was 17; Brittany when she was 29.  Joni had to endure a life-time of paralysis which to date has stretched to 47 years; Brittany was facing an imminent early death.  It is senseless to ask which woman had the most to bear.  Which is worse:  an early death or a life-time of suffering?  The question, of course, makes no sense.
  The reactions however of the two women, though starkly different, are both very instructive.  When Joni first faced catastrophe, despite suicidal thoughts and wavering faith, she ultimately clung to God and embraced it as His will.  She offered her life afresh to Him, learning to paint with her mouth, and speaking to others about serving God whatever one’s lot in life.  She created a legacy in 2006 by establishing the “Joni and Friends International Disability Center” to help people cope with their disabilities.
  Brittany’s reaction was very different.  She decided that she would not only end her life early and on her own terms, but began to campaign for the legalization of the euthanasia she found in Oregon which allowed her to take her own life.   Her legacy can be found in her online website, “Compassion & Choices”, which serves to promote legalized euthanasia.
  Given these differences, it is interesting that their lives intersected at one place.   On October 15, Joni published a piece in the Religion News Service, speaking about Brittany’s then-impending and very public intention to kill herself.  In that piece Joni wrote, “I understand she [Brittany] may be in great pain, and her treatment options are limited and have their own devastating side effects, but I believe Brittany is missing a critical factor in her formula for death: God.  The journey Brittany — for that matter, all of us — will undertake on the other side of death is the most important venture on which we will ever embark. So it must not be disregarded or brushed aside without thinking twice about the God who alone has the right to decide when life should begin and end…If I could spend a few moments with Brittany before she swallows that prescription she has already filled, I would tell her how I have felt the love of Jesus strengthen and comfort me through my own cancer, chronic pain and quadriplegia. I would tell her that the saddest thing of all would be for her to wake up on the other side of her tombstone only to face a grim, joyless existence not only without life, but without God.”  I am not aware if Brittany ever saw the piece, or made any response.
  It looks as if North American society is preparing to side with Brittany and not with Joni.  In the People Magazine newsbyte which featured an interview with Brittany, gentle piano music was already playing in the background, subtly manipulating the sympathy of the listener.  A “social medical expert” (a what?) writing for the Washington Post was quoted as saying, “People are increasingly asking why anyone—the state, the medical profession, religious leaders—would presume to tell someone else that they must continue to die by inches, against their will.”  It never seemed to occur to the social medical expert that everyone on earth is “dying by inches”, whether they have terminal cancer or not.  Nonetheless, daring to suggest that the choice for self-destruction is an immoral one is denounced as “presumption”.  That must be right.  A social medical expert has said so.  And Brittany herself told People Magazine that “for people to argue against this choice for sick people really seems evil to me”.  The battle lines for the disputants in this debate are being clearly drawn, with Brittany denouncing the opposing side as “evil”. 

  Faced with the news of Brittany’s suicide on November 1, our first response should be compassion, and our first duty, prayer.  But our compassion for poor Brittany must not be allowed to skew our judgment.  We leave Brittany to the judgment of God, as we leave all His children.  But as we consider whether self-destruction is a human right or a tragic misstep, I’m standing with Joni.

On the oca.org site, the following piece on this topic can be found:

Learning from Brittany

 On Saturday November 1 Brittany Maynard committed suicide.  She had been diagnosed this last spring with a rare form of brain cancer and given six months to live.  She decided she did not want to live that time suffering from her disease with its increasingly severe seizures, and so she moved to Oregon with her husband and took the overdose of barbiturates prescribed by her doctor for the purpose of suicide.  She was twenty-nine years old.
 As might be expected her very public death (she shared on Facebook her decision to kill herself that day with the words, “Today is the day I chosen to pass away in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer which has taken so much from me… but would have taken so much more”) has ignited afresh what has been called by some the “right-to-die” debate in the United States.  That debate will continue to rage, with some hailing Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act” as a milestone of compassion, while others denouncing such measures as the creeping secularization of the nation.  Certainly the disabled and the elderly have much to lose if what Hamlet called God’s “canon against self-slaughter” is revoked by the legislature, and some of them have already weighed in on the debate.  Here I would like to look at the issue from the strictly theological perspective.  Here the question is not just “Will legalizing euthanasia lead to bad things?” but the more fundamental issue of human sovereignty versus the divine.  Bluntly put, do we have the right to arrogate to ourselves matters of life and death, deciding who may live and who may die?  Are we the Lords of life and death, or does such lordship belong solely to God?
  Traditional Orthodox theology is in no doubt of the answer.  In one of the prayers for Pentecost Vespers, we invoke God as the “Maker of every nature of man, of that which is brought together and again put asunder, of life and of the end of life, of sojourning here and of translation there, the One who measures the years of life and sets the times of death”.  That is, to God alone belongs the decision regarding the hour of death.  Our duty as believers is to approach our own deaths as His obedient children.  But what does this actually mean?  I suggest three things.
  First it means that we live our lives in complete submission to His will, saying about everything that befalls us, “Glory to God for all things!”  This was how St. John Chrysostom met his final end, and in making these his final words he was expressing the essence of Christian living and Christian dying.  He was following in the footsteps of the Mother of God, who upon hearing the voice of the archangel responded, “Let it be to me according to your word”.   Offering such submission means that we receive every day as a gift from God, and if God wills to give us the gift for six years, or six months, or for six days we receive whatever He gives with gratitude.  We do not take our destiny upon ourselves, nor declare ourselves masters of our own fate or captains of our own soul.  God is the Lord, the One who measures the years of life and sets the times of death.  Our destiny, fate, and souls lie entirely in His hand, and we rest content that it should remain so.
  Secondly it means that we strive to learn the lessons which each day offers, including our last days.  The final lessons may be the hardest, lessons of purification and patience and perspective.  It could be that the final dark days may be the most important ones, days that prepare us for eternity.  We short-circuit this process if we refuse the gift of the final days, though it may be that the lessons to be learned then are crucial ones.  Our culture values avoidance of pain above all else, but one who lives under the shadow of the Cross knows that avoidance of pain can never be the ultimate good.  Holiness is ultimate good, and drawing near to God, even if the way into His presence involves purification and pain. 
  Finally, it means that we use our death to glorify God.  The task is the same for us as it was for St. Peter—by which death can we glorify God (John 21:19)?  It could be that God has decided that like Peter we will glorify Him by a martyr’s death.  It could be that He has decided that we will glorify Him by dying quietly in our beds after eating a bowl of ice-cream.  It could be that He has decided that we will glorify Him by dying in a cancer ward after a six month struggle with brain cancer.  The details of our final end ultimately matter less than the fact that we are fulfilling His will.  An obedient heart will say to Him, “Lord, show me by what death I can best glorify You and I will die this death in Your Name.”

  The time for decision has come and gone in the short life of Brittany Maynard.  The time for decision for us is still in our hands.  Let us live and die as God’s obedient children, and glorify Him to our last breath.

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