Do we ever have the right to choose when we die? The issue of assisted suicide is topical in South Africa at the moment. On April 30th this year, Advocate Robin Stransham-Ford died only hours before the court granted his application for state assistance in ending his life, after a prolonged battle with cancer. Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s response to the issue was that “only God can decide when a person dies”.
To be honest, I had not given the whole issue much thought until a few pupils of mine asked me what I thought. I might draw criticism from some of my Christian friends by stating this, but I believe the argument that we should not ‘play God’ to be quite ingenuous. It is, at best, a knee-jerk response to which little thought has been given. At worst, it is intellectually lazy and logically flawed. Christians ‘play God’ in all sorts of ways every day. We give blood transfusions, put people on life support, use contraception, not to mention how we ‘play God’ in our judgments on others’ lifestyles and in our attempts to compel or manipulate others into thinking as we do. We are quite willing, too, to let non-Christians ‘play God’ by flying across the world when we were not given wings by God, or to transplant organs, or in a myriad other ways, without feeling the compulsion to comment on it. Yet when we cannot find a way to justify a moral standpoint with logic, we resort to the convenient ‘who are you to play God?’ card. It is, I think, somewhat dishonest.
I am also not convinced that euthanasia is an issue on which we ought to be attempting to occupy the moral highground. When it comes down to it, we live in a secular society, and cannot realistically expect non-Christians to be held accountable for refusing to conform to a Christian set of values on such matters. If a Christian, who professes the same value system that we do, seems to be contravening that moral code and thereby threatens to bring the Christian faith into disrepute, I believe we have the right – and indeed the obligation – to respond. But it is arrogant and unloving to expect non-Christians to live by our values. If we believe they should, we should be lovingly wooing them into seeing the beauty in the Christian worldview, not bullying them into it. ‘Playing God’ is not an argument that has a place in a secular sphere.
That said, I do not believe that euthanasia is a Christian moral absolute anyway. In the light of Christ’s crucifixion, where “…by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations [my emphasis]. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity” (Ephesians 2:15), “everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial”. My objections, then, to both suicide and euthanasia would be grounded not on whether or not such things are permissible, but on the premise that they are not beneficial. They are wasted opportunities. While I do not begrudge a man the right to end his suffering, I would contest the assertion by proponents of euthanasia that dying and suffering diminish human dignity. On the contrary, I believe that suffering and even dying are powerful vehicles through which God can touch hardened hearts. Sometimes people are at their most beautiful when they act with dignity in undignified circumstances.
When Jesus was cruelly beaten and executed on trumped-up charges, a Roman centurion, who had no doubt watched thousands die, seeing all that had transpired, was moved to respond “Surely this was a righteous man!” (Luke 23). It was not the eloquence of Jesus’ defense, the righteousness of his cause, or the wisdom of his teachings that touched the centurion. It was in the dignity of Jesus’ death – in his plea for the forgiveness of his murderers, and in his unwavering compassion, despite his suffering – that the soldier’s heart was touched. Dying and dignity are far from antithetical.
And it is not just within a Christian context that this is evident. Nelson Mandela’s response to his unjust imprisonment, or the dignity that Viktor Frankl reports seeing in the Nazi concentration camps, touch something in our common humanity, irrespective of our religious creeds or cultural paradigms. I have long been an admirer of Frankl. Consider these profound observations about human dignity and suffering from Man’s Search For Meaning:
“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
“What is to give light must endure burning.”
“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
I could go on; Frankl inspires me on a heart level. I will leave it there, because I think the point is clear. Please don’t misunderstand me. I think there are definitely cases when suffering can be considered devoid of the possibility of human dignity. That point, in my opinion, is when the sufferer no longer has any choice in how to respond.
Although I believe this to be true outside of a Christian worldview, I do not expect non-Christians to adopt this mindset. That would be to impose an unfair burden. I would hope, though, that Christians, in the midst of what seems like intolerable suffering, would remember Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 10:
23 “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive. 24 Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others [my emphasis].
32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God– 33 even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (my emphasis)
Suffering in life is unavoidable. And I can understand the aching for it to end. But it provides a unique opportunity to minister to others’ hearts. Suffering with dignity gives you a moral credibility that nothing else can provide, and if you leverage that opportunity properly, if you use your suffering as a vehicle for showcasing God’s love in a world where suffering causes many to question that love, you have a – sometimes quite literally – once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to challenge God’s detractors. While it would not, I think, be morally abhorrent to squander that chance, the world would certainly be potentially poorer for it.