LIFE BEFORE DEATH
by Forrest Church
March 27, 2005
The great Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr instructed his ministerial students at Union Theological Seminary to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Half a century later, his quest to insure Biblical relevance seems almost quaint. With the Bible making daily headlines—with Senators and Congressmen routinely citing God and the scriptures when shaping public policy—these days anyone seeking spiritual guidance can go straight to the newspaper, beginning on page one, on through the Nation section, and continuing through the op/ed pages. Given the near-satanic twist fundamentalist religion is giving to public policy discussions, I'm quite sure that Professor Niebuhr would have lavished more than a little of his delicious irony on today's religious politics.
On the other hand, that the entire nation should be focussed on the life and death drama of a single individual during Easter week does focus our thoughts where they probably ought to be.
I have nothing but compassion for the parties most intimately involved in the Terri Schiavo case. My heart goes out to Terri herself, whose life as we know life—mindful, sentient, and purposeful— appears effectively to have ended 15 years ago; to her parents, who, understandably, continue to hope against hope that she might yet miraculously recover; to her husband, whose years of unanswered prayers finally reconciled him to the futility of prolonging Terri's subsistence; to her doctors, who deliberated long and hard before determining that to keep Terri's body alive any longer would not serve life, but only prolong her living death; and to the judges, before whom the settlement of her case properly lies. One may question their decision to let Mrs. Schiavo die, while remaining grateful that we live in a nation of secular laws and not in a theocracy.
I wish I could add that my compassion—always an elevating sentiment—extends to the politicians who have opportunistically seized upon this family tragedy to trumpet their piety. Jesus warned against public displays of piety. He knew that self-righteous display is the opposite of righteousness before God. Among other things, such displays promote hypocrisy. Today, with respect to our born-again Congress, this hypocrisy is most evident in the ongoing debate over next year's budget. Terri Schiavo's care, and that of others like her, is largely underwritten by Medicaid, even as national funding for health care is being frozen and may soon be slashed. One can make a moral case against all forms of euthanasia, but to do so responsibly requires a commitment to underwrite the massive costs such a position must entail. As for all the pious political expostulation against starvation, cutting back on food stamps here at home or slicing foreign aid to abate famine abroad rips out untold numbers of feeding tubes. Children daily die in Africa by the hundreds, by the thousands, without fanfare—children not in a vegetative state, who might otherwise have lived a full and active life. While ignoring or rejecting so many other humanitarian pleas, when our legislators take time off from cutting the human services budget to promote a feeding law designed to address the plight of a single human being, they turn President Bush's "culture of life" mantra into a parody.
The Terri Schiavo controversy has led to at least one positive outcome. Over the past week, several of you I know (and perhaps many of you) have emended your living wills explicitly to include feeding tubes in the category of artificial life supports you ask not be employed to prolong your life beyond its natural term. Carolyn and I have done the same. We would readily choose death over 15 years of vegetative or semi-vegetative life supported by tubes. Death is not a curse to be outwitted no matter the cost. Death is the natural hinge upon which life turns, without which life as we know it could not be. A pro-life support position is not always a pro-life position. When we can no longer hold on with hope or purpose, to let go for dear life is to die with dignity and grace.
It goes without saying that the pro-life rubric provides the religious right with a powerful rhetorical symbol. The word "life" encompasses a far more resonant standard for moral action than does the word "choice." And yet, in the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses tells God's people, "Choose Life," life and choice are yoked together in a single redemptive dynamic. Without choice, life, especially moral life, is diminished to almost nothing. Without choice there can be no moral agency. Moral capacity is based entirely on the ability to choose, even to choose life. By definition, a life-affirming ethic requires hard choices among competing moral ideals. For instance, the social cost of banning all forms of euthanasia—considered a mortal sin by the religious right—will be offset elsewhere, at the expense of pre-natal care or of preventative medicine. Some proportion of healthy people will get mortally ill in exchange for keeping a smaller number of critically ill people barely alive. To choose life, embracing the fullness of God's call, we must be morally mature enough to admit the necessity of triage. Otherwise, on the altar of our piety we may lavish care on those who can't significantly be helped, while others, whose lives might be saved at far less cost languish in the nation's expanding waiting room.
With respect to abortion, did you know that 300,000 fewer abortions were performed during President Clinton's eight years in office than have already occurred during President Bush's five. In part, this is surely due to the cutback in funding and the restriction of birth control and family planning services in health education and sex education programs. In light of these numbers, one could argue that a pro-choice agenda serves the anti-abortion cause more effectively than does a so-called pro-life agenda, which limits contraceptive options and restricts sex education to the moralistic platitude of "Just say no." Even apart from such evidence, a pro-birth stance outlawing all forms of abortion and an anti-death stance outlawing all forms of euthanasia (though rarely extended to capital punishment and war) does not, in my opinion, add up to a pro-life policy, especially when questions addressing the quality of life—after birth and before death—appear to evoke respectively little moral intensity or compassionate solicitude from self-described pro-life crusaders.
Beyond this, if we are truly to choose life, we must weigh the competing demands for our moral attention in the scales of equity and justice. An encompassing pro-life position would weigh into the balance poverty and malnutrition, equal health care and education, and all the many facets of human rights and dignity, with as much care as today's pro-life crusaders devote to abortion, euthanasia, and Gay marriage. To choose life is not, regardless of the cost, to mandate birth or to prevent death. To choose life is to nurture and enhance the quality of life for the entire human family. This entails moral choice and requires moral compromise. No responsible civil ethic can be fashioned that does not allow prioritizing the competing claims on our moral attention. To choose life— reverently and thoughtfully, unbiased by sentimentality—we must resist the siren's song of moral absolutists, for whom both choice and compromise are anathema.
I recognize that I've been talking about ethics on what many would define as a metaphysical occasion. Before mounting my spiritual charger—as all these trumpets seem to call for—and galloping off toward the ether, let me say a word about our approach to religion here. We Unitarians are sometimes accused of having a thick ethic and a thin metaphysic. Even on Easter, I will rush to say, "Guilty as charged." We test our faith by deeds not creeds. As Henry David Thoreau put it when asked about the afterlife, we take things one life at a time. Our book of revelation is the book of nature. We read the story of our lives and the story of life itself in its rich and luxuriant pages. As Jesus himself did, we follow the spirit not the letter of the scriptures. Love to God—the ground of our being, being itself—and Love to Neighbor are our two great commandments, summing up all the law and the prophets. We see ourselves as being saved in and for the world, not from the world. Whatever we may think about life after death, we devote our full spiritual attentions to life before death, seeking to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. When pondering the life and death of Terri Schiavo or Jesus of Nazareth or our own life and death, we look not to the supernatural for meaning or rescue. Instead, we peer through life's veil in search for the super in the natural, that our lives may be touched by awe and blessed by grace.
Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. We are not the animal with tools or the animal with advanced language. We are the religious animal. Knowing we will die, we question what life means. Question of ultimate meaning are religious questions. One may answer them, of course, with non-religious answers. Just make sure these answers are not too glib. For instance, whenever someone boasts to me that she doesn't believe in God, I ask her to tell me a little about the God she doesn't believe in, because I probably don't believe in him either. If fundamentalists of the right enshrine an idol on their altar, an impossibly petty, tyrannical and tiny God, fundamentalists of the left strike that idol from the altar and believe that they have done something creative or important. Both remain in thralldom to the same tiny God.
Theology is poetry, not science. It almost has to be. By cosmologists' latest reckoning, there are some 100 billion stars in our galaxy and ours is one of perhaps 100 billion galaxies. Divide the stars among us, and in our galaxy alone, every individual alive on earth today would be the proud possessor of seventeen personal stars. In the cosmos itself, the star to person ratio is 1.7 trillion to one.
So do we stop and shake our heads in humility and wonder? No. We sit on our tiny spit of sand on this vast cosmic beach and argue over who has the best insider information on the creator and the creation. Is it the atheist or the theist? The Hindu or the Buddhist? The Catholic, the Protestant, the Muslim or the Jew? Is it Jesus? The Buddha? Mohammed? How about Darwin, Gandhi, or Freud? Billions of accidents conspired to give each of these compelling teachers the opportunity even to teach. Knowing this—pondering numbers beyond reckoning—doesn't strip me of my faith. It inspires my faith. It makes me humble. It fills me with awe.
If our religion doesn't inspire in us a humble affection for one another and a profound sense of awe at the wonder of being, what finally will? If we can't see our own tears in the eyes of all who mourn and would be comforted, how will we find comfort when we too enter the valley of the shadow?
These questions you won't find answered in the papers. There you'll see true believers with signs cursing judges and damning to hell a bewildered, angry man who has watched his wife linger on life supports in a twilight zone between birth and death for fifteen years. And you'll see pious politicians claiming fidelity to the letter of the scriptures, testifying on behalf of a narrow moralistic agenda, crafting sentimental ad hoc legislation that stands no chance of passing legal muster, while casting budget votes that defy the spirit of neighborliness without giving this a second thought.
Perhaps its time to put the papers aside for a moment. Time to gaze into the heavens, to recognize that we are all more alike than we differ, certainly more alike in our ignorance than we differ in our knowledge. Time to remember how fragile life is and how precious love must therefore be. Time to seize every opportunity we are given to offer thanks, to celebrate, to serve, hope and love. Perhaps its time to wander back once again to Calvary for our annual Easter visit. Nothing is there now. No crosses. No crowd. We stand alone, looking beyond a naked hill to an endless desert. You and I together, each of us alone, looking out on eternity, measuring time.
Alone we walk and yet together. Alone, together with Terri and with Jesus and with one another. We look into forever and we weep. And then we look back. How amazing it was! Wasn't it amazing? The people who loved us. The people who tried. Our parents, they weren't perfect no, but neither are we. Our children, if we are blessed to have children. Our friends, the sun and moon, touch and sight, taste, hearing, smell, every miracle we take for granted every day of our lives until the day we die. How amazing it was, life before death.
Look back and mourn. Then look back and sing. Remember how profoundly we are blessed. Yes, and then we too are resurrected. Removed from our death supports.
Whatever our theology, Jesus lived to remind us that we too can be saved. Not from others, but from ourselves. Saved from self-absorption, self-pity, self-despite. Saved from self-righteousness. Saved from unwarranted displays of conspicuous piety. Saved by love.
Let me leave you with a question. What if this is your last Easter? Or the last Easter you are blessed to share with someone you love? Will anything you do or feel today remain? In your heart you know the answer. Only love remains, only the love we give away remains, the rest is dross.
For you and for me, for Jesus and for Peter, for Terri and her parents and her husband, when death is the occasion, love is the only saving medium and forgiveness, love's most perfect catalyst. That is the message of Easter, its hope and its promise. Death doesn't conquer love, love conquers death. Those who love us live on in the love we receive. By their love we will always know them. And our own bequest of love, however imperfect, this too will outlast us. It will outlast us and it will perfect us. For not only does the love we give live on in our name. It redeems our own and saves our loved ones lives.
You won't find that in the papers either. But you will in the Bible. "Choose Life." "Love your neighbor as yourself." Can you imagine anything more amazing? Life before death. And love after death. Each miracle enough for me. Each sufficient cause for everlasting praise.
Amen. I love you. Happy Easter. And may God bless us all.
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