Thursday, March 24, 2005

Death's Bad Rap

Andrew Sullivan's Quote of the Day consists of the following statement by the Jesuit Theologian Rev. John J. Paris:
"Here's the question I ask of these right-to-lifers, including Vatican bishops: as we enter into Holy Week and we proclaim that death is not triumphant and that with the power of resurrection and the glory of Easter we have the triumph of Christ over death, what are they talking about by presenting death as an unmitigated evil? It doesn’t fit Christian context. Richard McCormick, who was the great Catholic moral theologian of the last 25 years, wrote a brilliant article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1974 called "To Save or Let Die." He said there are two great heresies in our age (and heresy is a strong word in theology — these are false doctrines). One is that life is an absolute good and the other is that death is an absolute evil. We believe that life was created and is a good, but a limited good. Therefore the obligation to sustain it is a limited one. The parameters that mark off those limits are your capacities to function as a human."

Now, this really doesn't impact to me in any way, because I'm not Christian. But it does give me at least some pause in terms of my theological debates with Christians. I often ask them explain the clear-cut murdering of innocents God engages in throughout the bible (the "two year old first born son" in the 10th plague, the Book of Job). One of the common responses (though not the only) is that death isn't the ultimate evil--all that is happening is these innocents are returning to God. However, then when we get back down to the modern world, abortion and euthanasia become the ultimate of moral evils. How do those two issues co-exist? Sure, one could argue that the actions in the bible are God's and thus beyond reproach, but I think that dodges the question--the "good" caused by death (returning to God) is caused regardless of whether the source is God, or an illness, or a freak accident, or the hand of mankind. Perversely, it seems this logic could be used to justify murder on a grand-scale--which is worse: letting humans continue to live in the stench of sin, or returning them to their merciful and just God?

As a Jew, I don't believe in the primacy of the immortal kingdom over the one established here on earth. So I can happily believe death is the great moral evil, guilt-free. But for those who do, this strikes me as a fundamental tension in the moral doctrine of Christianity. Millions of persons have died on Christian crusades, at least in part motivated because they were doing God's will and that their mortal life was a mere crucible for the world-to-come. It seems difficult to pick and choose where death is okay, and where it isn't.

This isn't to indict Rev. Paris. I think his point--that life, in the moral sense, means a functioning life, and when life is not functioning it can be killed. Nor do I think he means this in a callous sense. If you believe in reincarnation, it gives what must be a tortured soul "take two," another chance at life. If you don't believe in that, but still believe in an afterlife, it allows a soul the immediate chance to experience the life-as-afterlife, something an incapacitated, non-functioning human being cannot. And if you don't believe in any form of religion, surely the prospect of an entirely non-conscious existence, divorced from the capability of rational thought, is a scary prospect. There is a reason why polls overwhelmingly say, if in the same situation as Schiavo, the vast majority of American's would not want to be artificially kept alive. Regardless of whether they want to meet their maker, or just be released from a life not worth living, they same to agree that Schiavo's situation isn't really a life at all.

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