Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Whose life is it? and whose death?

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."

Monday, May 22, 2017

Resistance: a biblical calling

Resistance is one of many new political mantras. Hillary Clinton, in a relatively unbuttoned recent interview with Christiane Amanpour, made a move to anoint herself as the new queen of resistance. That's not the direction I want to follow. The Wesleyan dictum that Mrs. Clinton frequently quotes ("Do all the good you can") depends upon what the Mockingbird people call a "high anthropology." As a Reformed theological thinker, I'm not in that camp. There are many figures beloved by those of us who like to try to think radically about biblical politics while still affirming the justification of the ungodly: William Stringfellow, Will Campbell, Vernard Eller, the Blumhardts père et fils, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Ellul, Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder (more ethically tarnished than the others, but a herald of the resistance nevertheless), and many others. This theological stance requires, among other things, a suspicion of "victimology" and a full-throated affirmation of the universality of human bondage (hence, a "low anthropology").

The most familiar biblical text using the word resist (Greek root antistasis) is I Peter 5:8-9:
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist (imperative antistete, stand against) him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
The book I may or may not live to write is tentatively called The Cruciform Life, originally intended as Part Three of my book The Crucifixion. 200 pages exist in preliminary form but had to be split off when The Crucifixion grew to be 850 pagesOne of the chapters of this partially completed volume is called "Resistance." In this relatively brief blog post, I'd like to say something about how resistance, biblically understood, is a significant marker of Christian life in the world.  But first we need to rethink the way we read the Bible, and especially the New Testament, because very few 21st- century Christians have been taught to take the Devil seriously unless they worship in the backwoods (so to speak), or unless they have read Jeffrey Burton Russell's four-volume academic work on Satan. I'm not going into detail on that here (for more detail, read the first part of my chapter "The Descent into Hell" in The Crucifixion) but will just point to the cosmology of the New Testament, which presupposes the entrenched opposition of an occupying Enemy against which the human race is powerless without aid "from another quarter" (hinted at in Esther 4:14). And see also The Lord of the Rings, in which this scenario is superbly dramatized.

A brief look through several New Testament translations offers no alternative rendering of the Greek antistete other than resist. Literally, it means "to oppose," "to stand against." How are we to resist evil in our current situation without 1) becoming insufferably self-righteous; 2) linking our views to specific political figures; 3) alienating a significant percent of our congregations?

The most-read blog I've ever posted is this call to arms:
This was written in July 2016. I can't say that I've seen much in the way of "resistance preaching" since the election. I've observed, however, that there have been some oblique messages from pulpits and in newsletters that, given time, may bear fruit. The interim pastor of a small rural church that I occasionally attend has not failed to speak out, Sunday after Sunday, about biblical mandates such as care for the poor, hospitality to the stranger, love of the "other." At the same time I don't hear the most radical call of all--to love our enemies and pray for those who curse us. There is a beautiful "Prayer for our Enemies" in the Book of Common Prayer, but I have yet to hear it used in any church unless I was reading it myself. It seems to me that praying for our enemies is a particularly powerful form of resistance. It marks out the unique character of Christian faith, which emerged out of the prayers of Jesus Christ for his enemies; and who were we if not his enemies?

People often protest that we should be for something, not against something. We should affirm something, they say, not protest something (as in "Protestant"). But sometimes--oftentimes--it is necessary to be unmistakably against that which destroys what we are for. When anthropological theology threatens to run away with the church, we need to resist it--by countering it with strong biblical theology. Simply offering the strong biblical message without a counterpunch, however, does not always do the job. I have learned that the hard way, as I have watched groups steeped in the genuine evangel quickly deteriorate when some "Galatian" or "Corinthian" teachers (Paul's opponents in two of his churches) moved in and began to offer a legalistic or gnostic "gospel"... and people did not even notice what was happening; no wonder Paul wrote in such impassioned terms. More than once, in the 1980s, I preached during a Lenten series in which Bishop Spong also preached. It was very apparent from frequent comments at the church door ("You and Bishop Spong are my favorite preachers!") that they could not tell the difference between my preaching and Spong's. Because of this lack of theological training among churchgoers, resistance needs to be explicit. It does not need to be nasty, but it needs to make itself known.

It seems to me that we in America are now observing a gradual settling-into the new geopolitical situation, a "normalizing" of it. The new tone is part of this--the deterioration of the language, the new tolerance of profanity and insult in public life, a new contempt for sober intellectual analysis, the celebration of ignorance, the widespread dissemination of untruth--all this is rapidly gaining acceptance. There is an unmistakeable uptick in attacks on Muslims, Jews, Hispanics, Arabs (or anyone mistaken for an Arab), and others who do not fit into the "white" spectrum.  Who would have thought that a displaying a picture of the Statue of Liberty would have become an act of political resistance?

It is showing up on all sides: increasing racial and ethnic tensions, contempt for the opposition, the hyper-frenetic pace of competition, the lack of humility, the crass and unashamed display of the pursuit of wealth, the focus on surfaces and consumption, the increasingly precarious lives of people on the margins and increasing indifference toward them. Any act, however small, of refusal to participate in these trends is an act of resistance. Acquiring less, giving more, seeking quiet pursuits, being neighborly, picking up trash, joining book clubs, writing letters to the editor, supporting charitable endeavors--such things are, in their way, forms of resistance.

However, for those who are called to public life, and for those of us who depend upon their leadership, there is an overwhelming need for open, even heroic, acts of resistance...and there are ways to support that. I'm thinking not only of the famous dissidents known to everyone, but of Sophie Scholl and her student friends against the Nazis, the Monday Demonstrations in East Germany that helped bring down the Berlin Wall, the "No" campaign in Chile by hip young people who designed media messages to help bring down Pinochet...the list is long, but not as long as it might be. Do you know about these movements?  The "No" campaign is portrayed in an excellent movie starring Gael Garcia Bernal (entitled, simply, NO). Sophie's movement is the subject of an even more powerful movie, The White Rose. Might we not look for something like this today in our own setting?  The Monday Demonstrations were started at St Nicholas Lutheran Church in Leipzig, each Monday after evening prayers. The pastor there, with the unlikely name of Christian Führer, was the catalyst.

A close friend once asked me why I spent so much time reading about and watching films about great atrocities. That was a challenging question. I gave it a lot of thought. I finally decided that I wanted to inform myself about the worst of the worst because it gives me a sense of mastery, a sense of agency, a sense that I might have a role to play. I have never been confronted with a life-or-death decision, but I would like to think that I was prepared. It's been said about the survivors of Mother Emanuel, the AME church in Charleston where Dylan Roof massacred the members of the Bible study group, that whereas they were not ready for such a horrific attack, they were prepared The extension of forgiveness by some of them to the killer was not glib or superficial. They understood that forgiveness in such a situation was not from a position of victimization, but from a position of superior strength.

Being prepared means looking without blinking at the presence and potency of radical evil in order to register the worst about human nature, to fortify ourselves to resist the worst, and to prepare for this resistance by acknowledging that there are submerged dark inclinations in all of us that under certain circumstances can come to the surface. These ideas belong to the season of Advent, a time for reflecting upon preparation, not so much for the coming of Christ as it is for preparing to live a Christ-like life. That kind of preparation is part of our calling as part of the Body of Christ. We hear about this in a context of crisis/ in Mark 13, just prior to the season of Advent :
...Take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them...  And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit...  and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.
And then if any one says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. False Christs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But take heed; I have told you all things beforehand.
"I have told you all things beforehand..." As followers of Jesus, we are prepared and fortified with the Holy Spirit. We will recognize the difference between the speech that degrades and the speech that elevates. We will see that such things as ramping up the atmosphere of consumer excess, shaming poor children whose parents cannot or have not paid for their lunches, exploiting workers who have no defenses, continuing to enlarge our prisons without care for the inmates, allowing gun violence to continue unabated, and watching passively as environmental protections are dismantled require not just deploring from afar, but active resistance.

The kind of "resistance" we are now seeing on our college campuses is disgraceful. When left-wing students come out to protest with insults and violence, resistance is demeaned and co-opted by the very forces the demonstrators supposedly wish to contest. There is no more central ethic for Christians than the ethics of means. If the means do not mirror the mind of Christ, then resistance becomes corrupt and self-defeating, not to mention unChristian. This is a subject requiring much more extensive discussion, but in the meantime these reflections are meant simply as a contribution to the discussion. (Personally, I favor the Notre Dame solution [walking out] or, better still, quietly standing up with back turned to the speaker.)

And another recommendation about active resistance: there is a little (tiny, actually) primer that distills some of the great learning and wisdom of  public intellectual Timothy Snyder as a handbook and guide to resistance: