Last weekend, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey and other Christian and Jewish leaders voiced their support for the assisted dying Bill.
In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, they argued that ‘religious teachings that elevate suffering and pain as something “sacred” should not be used to prevent terminally ill people taking their own lives.’
Offering us a stunning re-interpretation of Judeo-Christian values, Lord Carey and Co asserted that although life should be ‘valued’ as a ‘precious gift of God’, individuals also have a ‘right’ to ‘hand back’ the gift: ‘we … uphold the right of individuals who are approaching their last few months to gracefully hand back that gift [of life] if they feel the quality of their life is about to deteriorate beyond the point at which they want to continue.’
And then the pièce de résistance: ‘There is nothing sacred about suffering, nothing holy about agony, and individuals should not be obliged to endure it.’
Well, we have now the ultimate new-speak regarding suicide. Not so long ago, we spoke of suicide as ‘taking’ one’s life. But now, Lord Carey has told us that suicide can considered a ‘giving’ of sorts, and a giving back to God, no less. Following in line with all the euphemisms of the assisted suicide movement, with its insistence on a ‘right to die’, these religious figures now, too, assert that we have a ‘right’ – not just a political right, but a God-given right – to ‘gracefully hand back the gift’ God has given us if our lives become unbearable.
Yet, with all due respect, this statement simply does not make sense within a Christian framework. I cannot read it with a straight face. It is, rather, a humanist assertion, clothed in the very thinnest of Judeo-Christian language. It brings to mind the concept of ‘looking a gift horse in the mouth.’ You only have to take what God gives you in life, if you want it. There is no notion of faith here; no notion of trusting God’s will, His omniscience, His timing, His purposes.
God does, of course, admonish us to give up our lives to Him. As in, for instance, ‘whosoever shall lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.’ But by this he means dedicating our lives to keeping His commandments, helping others, and following His will. That’s the whole ‘not my will, but thine be done’ sort of thing. So giving up our lives is following His will; God never tells us that we can hand back our lives to Him through our own will.
Lord Carey and Co have been careful to stipulate that individuals have a right to assisted suicide only in the ‘last few months’ of life. But that position cannot hold with their assertions that there is ‘nothing sacred about suffering’ and that thus ‘individuals should not be obliged to endure it’. For these assertions fall right in line with what conservative thinker Ryan Anderson calls the ‘lethal logic’ of assisted suicide. That logic goes something like this: if, in the name of compassion, some terminally ill patients who are suffering should be helped to kill themselves, then why, through compassion, shouldn’t we also allow others who are suffering to experience physician-assisted deaths, such as the disabled, the elderly, the demented, or even infants who are likely to experience a life of suffering?
There is, in other words, no logical reason to limit assisted suicide to those on their deathbed if we use suffering as the justification for that suicide. And that leads us down a most un-Christian path of identifying some lives – that is, lives that do not entail a great deal of suffering – as more valuable, more important, more worthy of living, than others. So it must be the case that something is wrong with the premise of Lord Carey’s argument; that is, with the notion that there is nothing sacred about suffering to the point where it need not be endured. This concept cannot be a part of any proper Christian philosophy.
Indeed, the most sacred and holy act in Christian theology is an act of suffering – the suffering of Jesus Christ for the sins of mankind. If Jesus’s life has any connection with our own lives, which Christianity resolutely asserts that it does, it seems impossible to recognize Jesus’s suffering, while at the same time denying that there is something sacred – something purposeful or pedagogical – about our own, human suffering.
Thus, for the Christian, there must be something meaningful, in some way, about suffering. I’m not saying that God wants us to be miserable; on the contrary, I think that happiness is the purpose of our existence. But when we look at Jesus’s life, we learn quite a bit about suffering, both how endure it ourselves, and how to relieve it for others. The message seems to be that happiness, suffering, meaning, and purpose are all inextricably intertwined.
Besides His own sufferings, Jesus’s whole mission was about reaching out to those society thought to be worthless – the physically ill, the mentally ill, the troubled, the poor, the sinners – that is, those who were suffering in some way. I don’t recall that he ever suggested these people end their suffering by offering to assist them in suicide. In fact, I think it was the reverse – he went around blessing them, teaching them, healing them, encouraging them to endure, telling them to be of good cheer, and even bringing some of them back to life. That is, he suffered with them, and for them.
And here, surely, is where we have the Christian notion of compassion. Etymologically, compassion literally means ‘suffering with’. It is to ease the suffering of someone by going out of our way to help, to burden ourselves by joining them in whatever way we can on their difficult journey. It is not to eliminate their suffering through unnatural death.
It is always interesting how the media is quite happy to trumpet the words of religious leaders when they come out in favor of issues to which Christianity is traditionally opposed, and yet condemn Christianity as irrelevent – uncompassionate, hateful, even – whenever it stands against current social norms. But we’re playing a dangerous game if we seek to make Christianity popular, redefining our stance and our language to appease and conform, rather than to teach and to guide.
Christianity is, in its essence, a counter-cultural movement. It is about declaring and living a timeless truth, not about posing as ‘relevent’ for the times. If Lord Carey and Co believe that physician-assisted suicide should become legal, that is one thing. But to find justification for this view in the principles of Christianity is another thing entirely. It simply does not work.