Friday, March 25, 2005

Terri Shiavo and Human Dignity

The Terri Shiavo case has been dominating the news for the past several days. I have been frustrated by those who have suggested that her life should be dependent on the potentiality of recovery. The fact is Terri will not recover, barring some miracle. (For the record, I do believe in miracles.) She may improve slightly with increased therapy and better care, but she will remain severely incapacitated. Doctors suggest that less than 20% of her brain is functioning. Still, her situation is not terminal. She is not brain dead, and she responds to outside stimuli. Accepting that there is no potentiality of recovery, does she deserve to die?

One of the better articles that I have read has been by Eric Cohen, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In How Liberalism Failed Terri Shiavo, Cohen offers a fair reporting of the facts of the case, and then explores the ethical issues involved. He suggests that we have framed the ethical dilemma inappropriately. Instead of focusing on Terri’s wishes, as interpreted by her husband and family, we should ask what obligation does humanity have for those severely handicapped.

But the real lesson of the Schiavo case is not that we all need living wills; it is that our dignity does not reside in our will alone, and that it is foolish to believe that the competent person I am now can establish, in advance, how I should be cared for if I become incapacitated and incompetent. The real lesson is that we are not mere creatures of the will: We still possess dignity and rights even when our capacity to make free choices is gone; and we do not possess the right to demand that others treat us as less worthy of care than we really are.
I find it fascinating that Christianity grew so rapidly in its beginning partly because Christians valued life. They would not kill babies by exposure. They would care for orphans, the sick, and the elderly. When a plague would hit a town, the Christians would stay behind and care for the dying. New converts were attracted by their compassion.

Our faith teaches us that people are not statistics, puppets, or nuisances. Each person has dignity. With that in mind, I was amazed to read about one of the protestors for Terri Shiavo in Florida. Eleanor Smith is an activist, a self-professed lesbian and liberal, confined to a wheelchair because of polio. A few days ago she stated, "At this point I would rather have a right-wing Christian decide my fate than an ACLU member."

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Recommeded Reading

Another article from a former professor. This one is a devotional by Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes, pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, entitled the Judas Chromosome written for the Christian Century. I heartily recommend his writings and sermons. I also freely admit his influence on my understanding of ministry and the gospel.

Here’s an excerpt…
Could it be that the real reason we show betrayers so little compassion is that we’re afraid there is some Judas chromosome within all of us? We hate the thought that we too are capable of betraying trust. When Jesus claimed that one of the Twelve would betray him, the anxiety within all of their souls rushed to the surface. “Surely not I, Lord?” They might as well have said, “I’ve been worried about that, but I thought I had it under control.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Recommeded Reading

I found a great article in the Presbyterian Outlook by a former professor, Dr. Richard Ray. He gives a moving introduction to The Rule of Benedict. I certainly recommend it, and also appreciate his comments on our church’s unity.
Scripture provides communal adhesion. To wear nametags at a new member reception is not enough. We only become reconciled across our differences into authentic Christian community as we absorb Scripture into our souls. Perhaps our heartfelt hunger for Scripture, an aching illiteracy of the heart, leaves us demanding more than we should of one another.

We should never underestimate the cost of true community. Nor should we overestimate its general appeal. It is a hard won act of supernatural grace. It is hard won at the Cross, hard won through the Spirit’s intellectual claims, and hard won even through fear of the Lord’s commands. Benedict, in his quiet way, said that as we enter into such processes, Christ becomes personally present and miracles occur. He understood that personal sanctity is one of the fibers out of which the whole tapestry of the church is woven. The Reformed theologians knew that and urged it.
Thanks for the reminder, Dr. Ray.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Sidestepping the Resurrection?

In The Significance of the Resurrection, Cynthia Rigby warns her students to avoid "litmus test" theology.
"If you find yourself getting backed into a corner on a doctrinal issue, with someone pressing you merely to ‘check "yes"’ or ‘check "no,"’do your best to redirect the conversation."

I find Dr. Rigby’s advice more than a little disingenuous. If the issue was about God’s goodness or the loving quality of God, I don’t seriously believe she would advise students "to redirect the conversation."

"Is God loving? I want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer."
"uh...hmm...How ‘bout them Red Sox?"
However, Rigby is not dealing with those questions. Instead, she encourages her students to avoid questions concerning the nature of Christ’s resurrection.

When discussing the doctrine of the resurrection, we tend to fall into the trap of "litmus testing" one another. "Do you believe that Jesus Christ bodily arose?" "Do you believe in the resurrection, I mean, literally?"
Dr. Rigby suggests that no matter what we truly believe about the resurrection, we should avoid answering the question. Despite protests to the contrary, Dr. Rigby is not speaking to someone who believes the traditional teachings of the church. Those who believe that Christ arose bodily, literally, and historically have little trouble with questions about the resurrection. Dr. Rigby’s inclusivity is merely a rhetorical device to make those who must answer "no" or at best "maybe" feel better about their answer.

I understand the desire to make Christianity more attractive to the "cultured despisers." Still, what is so wrong with holding the orthodox position that the tomb was empty? To be fair, Dr. Rigby is right that we should look beyond the confession that "He is risen" for the significance of the resurrection. In fact, I would argue that all Christian theology ultimately answers, "So what?" to the reality of the resurrection.

In the article, Dr. Rigby suggests three important conclusions drawn from the resurrection. Her observations are intelligent and cogent. However, as helpful as her observations are, they are meaningless, if the resurrection isn’t reality. She seems to suggest that we can ignore this messy resurrection by focusing on the significance of it. She reminds me of cranky conservatives who boil the Scriptures down to "biblical principles" and then are no longer able to be surprised by the actual text.

Something happened that first Easter morning. The meaning of that morning is derived from the actual events of that morning. The question is essential. It should not be sidestepped.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Condemned to hell

Some may be surprised to discover that I agree with Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners, when he proclaims that budgets are “moral documents.” Moreover, I welcome a moral audit of the budget recently presented to Congress by President Bush. A vigorous debate concerning the spending priorities of the federal government would be helpful. What should be the moral priorities of government? What is the proper relationship between government and civil society? Answering these questions would provide a valuable civic education. However, I am amused by some of the moral and religious language used to bludgeon the President.

A few days ago, a group of mainline protestants released a statement recalling the Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. When the poor Lazarus died, he joined Abraham in comfort. When the rich man died, he received fiery torment in hell. These mainline leaders compare proponents of the Bush budget to the rich man.
Like many Americans, we read our daily newspaper through the lens of faith, and when we see injustice, it is our duty to say so. The 2006 Federal Budget that President Bush has sent to Capitol Hill is unjust. It has much for the rich man and little for Lazarus.
Although the mainline leaders don’t say so directly, by analogy, they condemn to hell those who support the President’s budget.

In principle, I don’t object to speaking about divine condemnation and specific evils. The Old Testament prophets certainly had no difficulty with that rhetoric. Nonetheless, in practice, I am more than a little reticent to condemn particular folks to hell. Where I’m wimpy, these mainline church leaders are willing to call down God’s wrath on supply-siders. Still, there remains a nagging irony. What if someone used the same rhetoric of eternal punishment about those who violate marriage vows, advocate heretical teachings, or celebrate particular moral failings? These same religious leaders would be the first to cast the charge of judgmentalism or self-righteousness. They would preach eloquently on logs and specks. Somehow they want it both ways. Sadly, the cause of the poor is too important, morally and biblically, to cheapen by overblown rhetoric.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Newsletter: WIJD

On my bookshelf I have a dusty old volume of Charles Sheldon’s novel, "In His Steps." The book was written in 1896 by Sheldon for his youth group in Topeka, Kansas. The novel tells the story of a pastor who challenges his congregation to live for one year asking the question, "What would Jesus do?" The rest of the book outlines the transformed lives of the parishioners as they tackle the problems of poverty, economic exploitation, graft, and the like. The story epitomized the social gospel movement and its optimism in human efforts solving human problems.

The book is not great literature, but amazingly it continues to make an impact. Just a few years ago, the book spawned a line of merchandising. One found WWJD everywhere, emblazoned on bracelets, T-shirts, bumper stickers, etc. The question became a credo for an entire subculture of Christians. But the fad faded. No one any more seems interested in asking, "What would Jesus do?" Part of me is relieved.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m entirely in favor of promoting ethics based on the teachings of Jesus. The world would be a better place if more people patterned their lives after our Savior. However, the question itself is troublesome. "What would Jesus do?" is conditional. "Would" implies an "if" clause. "If Jesus was here, what would he do?" As Christians who live in the sunlight of Easter, we no longer can speak conditionally.

"Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed."

The resurrection refuses to allow Jesus to slip into the sands of time. Instead, we believe in his reality and his continued actions on our behalf. His teachings remain valid because his kingdom remains an actuality. Perhaps, with all respect to Rev. Sheldon, this Easter we should take on a new challenge. Because Jesus is alive, let us ask, "What is Jesus doing right now?" Let’s live the next year asking, "What is Jesus doing in our congregation, in our families, in our lives?"

Hat tip: The first time I encountered the question, "What is Jesus doing?" was in a sermon by Leonard Sweet.