Saturday, 31 July 2010

Assisted suicide

‘But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.’(Luke 10:33)

In several countries, there is a legal duty of rescue imposed on anyone who fails to help someone escape from further peril. The most famous case of this kind in recent memory was the investigation of the photographers at the scene of Princess Diana’s car accident. The crime of "non-assistance à personne en danger" (deliberately failing to provide assistance to a person in danger) is punishable by up to 5 years in jail and a fine of up to €100,000. There are similar laws in the US and other EU member countries.

Members of the medical profession also have a general duty to rescue the public within the scope of their employment. Significantly, Americans refer to these as Good Samaritan laws.

Even where there is no legal requirement, the parable demonstrates that we all have an ethical duty of rescue.

When we consider suicide, we should realise that it is an act of desperation. Even if a person who decides to take their own life appears calm, rational and lucid, you may still consider their circumstances unique and desperate. We can also never know the extent to which they may be subtly persuaded to avoid further burden to family or society.

Those who favour assisted suicide are essentially proposing two fundamental challenges to the ethical principles that I’ve outlined so far.

1) That suicide is not only permissible by law, but that aiding a person in the commission of suicide is not a crime. Individuals, including medical staff, will no longer have a duty of rescue towards a person who calmly and rationally decides to commit suicide, but just doesn’t have the means. Apparently, the duty of rescue has now been perverted into a duty to despatch that person, once they formally indicate that life has become intolerable. Suicide counselling will eventually involve discussing the patient’s ‘termination alternatives’.

2) That suicide is not only a liberty right, simply permission to do something. They believe it is a claim right: that it imposes a consequent obligation on society to perform it on behalf of an incapacitated individual.

Of course, that claim, if accepted, will place society into an ethical quandary: whether the new duty of care to assist suicide trumps the duty of rescue to prevent it.

If suicide is seen by its proponents as a right, why should they suddenly stop at terminal patients. Why shouldn’t they extend it to a general right of all responsible citizens. Also, what constitutes incapacity? Is it simply that the person is too physically weak to despatch themselves properly, or that they lack the know-how and emotional composure.

Advocates also challenge the moral concept regarding the sanctity and dignity of life. Sanctity simply means ‘set apart’ or dedicated to a higher purpose. The dignity of life is a universal and precious attribute of all humanity. However impoverished we are by suffering, life is a gift from God. In learning through suffering God’s higher purpose, we discover our true worth. Indeed, Christians believe that tribulation is part of God’s redemptive purpose. "If we have received good from the Lord, shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10)

‘Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance’ (Rom. 5:3)

Of his impending brutal ordeal, Jesus said, ‘the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?’ (John 18:11)

We would also have to consider whether the Christian tradition in desperate situations is to confront extreme harm, or escape through suicide. Even a cursory review of Fox’s Book of Martyrs would indicate that the Christian tradition is to demonstrate the power of God’s love by enduring, rather than running away from our afflictions. Of course, this doesn’t mean we abdicate from showing practical compassion towards those in need.

Dr. David Rabin died in 1984, after a five year battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. This condition causes gradual paralysis to a point where the patient can no longer write, nor speak. David lost control of every muscle group in his body, except his eyebrows.

A colleague told him of a computer that could be operated by a switch connected to one muscle group. He used that computer to talk to family, tell jokes and write award-winning medical papers. At no point in the disease’s progression, did he indicate that his life lacked dignity.

Suicide is, in essence, a wilful abdication from this life and its burdens. Though tragic, it is a total evasion of responsibility for the investment that society makes in the individual. To then think that the society so abandoned should also carry the weight of responsibility for despatching that person is the height of irresponsibility.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Leaving for home

My father’s spirit passed into the presence of God last week. He had battled cancer for over seven years, but succumbed at 77. The calm, serene man whom I re-discovered after 18 years of estrangement was a far cry from the stern, forbidding disciplinarian that I grew up with.

A harsh approach typified my early interaction with my Dad. Perhaps, he was simply mirroring his own father’s behaviour. Whatever the reason, his parental skills were characterised by the adage, ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. There were countless instances of ‘applying the rod of correction to the seat of understanding’.

I am sure that there were many times when I deserved chastisement, so let me be clear: I’m not advocating a wholesale rejection of parental discipline.

My father re-married and although I tried to maintain contact, it became increasingly obvious that I was the outsider.

I got on with my life and converted from an aimless life to Christ at 20. I got married and took comfort in the knowledge that, by God’s grace, my daughters would enjoy a loving father.

In my conversion experience, I felt immersed in a deep reassurance of God’s fatherly love: a Father who relinquished His most cherished possession, His Son, to become the object of His wrath against our sins on our behalf. I still tried to ignore the nagging fears of abandonment. Although God had done His part in bestowing amnesty, the show of gratitude seemed to be up to me. I struggled to believe that dedication to God was as much of a gift as my conversion. Yet Paul stresses the contrary, ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ (Romans 8:32). Again, challenging a return to ritual and self-discipline in order to advance their spirituality, he asks the Galatians, ‘Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?’ (Gal. 3:3)

Over many years, I began to think that some relationships could never be healed. So I thankfully acknowledge the efforts of my Mum, who called my half-brother and passed on my Dad’s London phone number. She had heard that he had returned to the UK for cancer treatment.

Although it wasn't easy at first, we began to build up a bank of new memories. In bereavement, I hold them all up as precious jewels of experience.

For instance, I remember taking my Dad to Brighton earlier this year with my brothers. We had a wonderful time, although we cut the visit short because of Dad’s discomfort in the hot weather. He was trying to sit up on the seafront bench and the planks began to dig into his frail ribcage. I ran over to the Cargo Store and bought him a cushion to sit on: I relished another chance to love my Dad. He made a point of thanking me in a way that melted past pain and fears. We were and still are reconciled. And God has persuaded me to yield to the in-working of His Spirit, rather than trying to prove my worth to Him.

So, a few hours before my Dad died last week, I held his hand. He was beyond speech, but the nurse reassured me that hearing would be the last of his senses to go. I reminded him of how precious he was, that I wouldn’t forsake our pact to believe God for a miracle unless he chose to be with the Lord. I told him that I loved him so much and that I would take care of my brothers. A few hours later, Erskine Earl Shepherd, a man of God and my father passed, not away, but above.

I hope you can understand what Christ meant when he declared, ‘Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called sons of God’ (Matt. 5:9)

Far more can be gained from reconciliation, than maintaining estrangement. So if your life is characterised by reconciliation overcoming lasting resentment, you have reason to rejoice. In the family of God, it’s the defining trait.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Half-hearted hospitality

In poker, a ‘tell’ is a subtle, but noticeable change in a player’s behaviour. A flushed face, or an unconscious attempt to hide cards may indicate a strong hand. A brash, vocal exchange may be used to hide a weak hand.

Christ was a master of interpreting spiritual ‘tells’. He could say on first meeting the guileless Nathanael: ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ (John 1:47). Nathaniel had a reachable spirit, unencumbered with those layers of self-deceit that justify the status quo in our lives.

This is borne out by the ensuing conversation: Nathanael said to Him, “How do you know me?”. The answer: ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ astounds Nathanael to the point of declaring Jesus to be the Son of God!

The same can be said of the Samaritan woman at the well: ‘Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?’ (John 4:29)

In each case, the spirit was open and reachable: seeing no reason not to accept Christ at face value. They subject Him to no more reasonable scrutiny than elsewhere in their lives.

In contrast, although several Jews accepted the miracles, they lacked complete emotional engagement and asked for a sign from the sky. They only went as far as to accept Him as an exceptional prophet, but no more. They wore a mental straitjacket that blunted His impact on their resolve. For this reason, John records of Christ, ‘But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man’ (John 2:24,25).

Imagine having to admit, ‘I could have gained more insight into God’s love, compassion and authority, but Jesus doesn’t trust me because I have spiritual commitment issues’. Their acknowledgement was half-hearted, lacking complete emotional surrender. Sadly,they were not part of his inner circle: He did not entrust himself to them.

‘For the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1: 6-8)

As for the ‘tell’ that disguises this ambivalence, consider Simon the Leper. He extends as much measured hospitality towards Jesus as you would expect at a Middle East peace summit. Only enough as to prevent offence. Christ contrasts his sceptical reluctance with the emotional gratitude of the forgiven prostitute: ‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.’ (Luke 7:44)

This feast is a turning point. Judas openly criticizes the extravagant waste of costly perfume. He now realizes that the mission is more about Jesus himself, than some immediate social or political agenda against injustice and poverty. His disappointment will turn to lethal hostility in a few days.

So what do Abraham, Lot, Rahab the harlot, the widow of Zarepta and Dorcas have in common? They all demonstrated exceptional practical kindness towards the saints: those who publicly side and work with God against the spirit of the age.

To extend the warmth of human comfort towards those commended to us by their loyalty to God: Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts. 15:26) is ample demonstration of our faith.

‘That’s how it is with God’s love,

Once you’ve experienced it,

It’s fresh like Spring, you want to sing,

You want to pass it on’

As Paul said after stern words: ‘Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case - things that accompany salvation’ (Heb. 6:9)

The reason for Paul’s confidence is in the next verse: ‘God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.’ (vs. 10). In practical faith, they had despatched disaster relief through the apostles to alleviate suffering during the famine predicted by Agabus, the Jewish prophet (Acts 11:28)

‘No washing my feet,

No oil for my head,

No tears for Christ’s brethren,

Such cold faith is DEAD!’

May Jesus reveal the ‘tells’ of dead faith. May He rouse us all to a lively commitment in showing genuine hospitality, alleviating hardship among his brethren in these difficult times!

I want to ask any who read this to feel free to drop me an e-mail whereby we can begin to share your burden, be it financial or otherwise. It’s time for me to pay God’s love forward.