Death never makes for easy conversation. But the choice of a 29-year-old Brittany Maynard to take her own life over the weekend has a lot of people talking. There are the sad and belligerent comments in the name of Christianity, as well as those from supporters of her decision and still others who seek to be empathetic but strongly disagree.
Nearly five years ago, I was laying in an ICU, on oxygen, catheterized, wearing a diaper, and on a constant flow of the most potent narcotics the hospital had available. I could not eat, drink, or even hold an ice cube in my mouth and was unable to get out of bed under my own power. Much of my family had gathered in the room to hear the doctor pronounce that there was nothing more they could do.
My situation was not the same as Brittany’s or any others’ with terminal cancer, but this experience left me with a heightened awareness of some areas where Christians need to do better when faced with death and pain. It’s beyond the scope of this post to lay out all of the theological and moral implications involved, let alone all of the political and legal implications, but here are four areas for thought.
First, let’s focus on what we have to offer instead of what we want to condemn.
The greatest gift Christianity has to offer is not in the condemnation of the choice to take one’s life but in the provision of a compelling alternative.
The argument someone makes to take their own life is not that it is “good” but that it is “less bad” than any other alternative. Most don’t choose to die because they think it is the “right” path but because they cannot see one that is better. Convincing someone that they are making a “bad” choice does not necessarily bring them to a choice that is “better.”
Those who try to win an ethical argument that it is morally wrong for terminally ill patients to take their own lives are already quickly on their way to losing that argument. But those who are ready to articulate a better way have a real chance in changing the conversation itself.
Second, it’s true. You probably don’t understand what it’s like.
An extreme sort of subjective morality often dominates our cultural conversations on these issues. For Christians who believe in a universal truth that exists above, beyond any one individual, it’s easy to dismiss the subjective circumstances pretty quickly.
But the subjective matters. A lot. To either dismiss the subjective entirely or rely on it completely are both mistakes.
I was never faced with the kind of choice that Brittany faced. And I certainly don’t mean to say that my condition and prognosis were as severe as hers. But I do want acknowledge my own deep desire for empathy before answers. For me, it was more important that others walk alongside me than tell me where to go. Moral choices are not presented to us on a chalkboard in neat equations, but are lived, breathed, and sometimes screamed about in the midst of agony.
Our first job is not to prescribe how others should handle traumatic situations but rather to seek to be with them in it. Our empathy for others should always precede our judgment for their decisions.
Third, let’s remember death is not the worst of evils.
When we paint an alternative for others to consider, it should be based in a love for life — not fear of death.
New Hampshire, my home state, is famous for its state motto, “Live Free or Die.” But the full quote from General John Stark is “Live free or die, for death is not the worst of evils.” Christians are not to avoid death at all costs. Because of the cross and resurrection, death is supposed to lose its sting. Unfortunately, what has often been communicated by Christians in high-profile cases involving end of life is a deep-seated fear of dying.
“O Death where is thy sting” is the refrain of the Christian who has experienced the transformative power of the resurrection. Still, it seems like we often fail to live as if it is actually true. Christians need to make clear that their faith does not breed a fear of death. Rather, it cultivates an appreciation of life that transforms the fundamental horizon on which we view death altogether.
Fourth, the cross is foolishness.
When we talk about a Christian approach to life and death, we need to remember that it will often sound ridiculous or sometimes even be incomprehensible according to the dominant moral narratives.
The idea that the greatest triumph can come through the greatest humiliation and that restoration can come from destruction is utter foolishness. Still, that is one of the central beliefs of the Christian faith. The cross precedes resurrection.
This is a truth that is rarely argued well to another but often demonstrated. Convincing someone that they must die to find new life is not as effective as living out what that means.
Redemption of even the direst circumstances is possible. That doesn’t mean an easy resolution or miraculous healing. But it does mean that there is no fire that burns so hot that those in the midst of it can’t choose grace at the end.
Timothy King is Chief Strategy Officer for Sojourners. Follow him on Twitter @tmking.