Assisted dying became legally available on 7 November 2021. Continuing on in this series of articles to resource and support our churches at this time, pastor and scholar Jonathan Robinson reflects theologically around this issue.
Other articles in The End of Life Choice Act series:
- Pastoral responses by Phil Halstead
- Being a carer by Donna Denmead
- The practicalities by Rebekah Kilpatrick
Last year we wrestled with how to vote on the “End of Life Choice” referendum. For some it was an easy decision, for others more complex. Now, however, the new law is reality. While I recognise a diversity of Christian views on this issue, I want to speak to those who, like me, did not want this law to pass (others are of course welcome to listen in and take what you can from it!). I have noticed a tendency to overstate the importance of the law of the land in many of our Christian debates about ethical issues. I think it is important to remember that laws reflect society as much as they shape them, and in the case of assisted dying, these laws reflect changing attitudes and practices that were already taking place in New Zealand society. While the law is important, and there may be opportunities to influence the specifics of the law in the future, the way we act as ‘salt and light’ is far more important. I want to suggest that disgust and outrage against the law, government, or society, might make you feel more self-righteous, but will help no one else, nor will it ultimately honour God, for “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19). How do we turn our concern over this law into effective, loving, and righteous action in Jesus’ name?
Loving those at risk
First, we should ask, who is most at risk as a result of this change in law and changing attitudes to euthanasia? The immediate answer is the elderly, the disabled and the chronically ill. If we are really concerned about euthanasia, as I think we should be, then what are we doing about the quality of life, spiritual support and relational connection that such vulnerable people in our communities need to have lives they feel are worth living? This, of course, requires both individual and corporate action.
Questions we should ask of ourselves and our churches:
- Do we have, or do we need to build, relationships with local care homes?
- Are our church meetings accessible to the disabled and do we make space for and include such people in our gatherings?
- Do we know where the local hospice is and support it in prayer and finance?
- Do we pray for and support our local hospital chaplains?
Obviously, different circumstances and locations will provide different opportunities, but these questions would be a start in considering how to proceed constructively.
Being angry at social changes that are outside our control is like getting angry at the tide coming in or going out. We need to focus our concern not on anger at the change of law, but on love for those who the tide might wash away, and on those for whom we can make a difference. Let’s worry less about changing the world into our image, and more about loving our neighbour in the care home down the road, who is already made in God’s image.
Reflecting on our own mortality
Second, we should ask, how well do we as Christians speak and teach and understand the inherent value and dignity of human life, the problem of suffering, and what it means to age and to die well? Much of what I see in popular Christian media and practice suggests that Christianity is about avoiding suffering and having a great life (the best life!) in the here and now, with God as our personal life coach and a ticket to heaven when we die. We make little (if any) space for grief, lament and sorrow. We emphasise and celebrate youth and health, and tend to want to sweep the other stuff under the carpet as quickly as possible. With such theology it is hard to argue against those who find life painful wanting to speed up their arrival in ‘the good place’.
I have also noticed that often Christian funerals have morphed into (solely) memorials of the deceased and their life, rather than worship services that celebrate the gospel of Christ and commend the deceased into God’s care. Even when someone has died, we try to avoid the subject. When we suffer ill health or grief, it can feel like God has abandoned us because we are only used to seeing God in material blessings. The church, like the culture around us, has lost a healthy connection with suffering, death and grief and the traditions and understandings that would allow us to sanctify and embrace as God’s gift this normal part of being human. I think that without a renewed interest in what it means to age and die faithfully as Christians, we as churches will also find ourselves increasingly swept up in the cultural tide. Before we can disciple our culture, we need to be discipled ourselves into a more authentic and wholistic faith.
This is only a brief piece of writing, designed to be provocative. Let’s keep the conversation going, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below. I strongly believe that being faithful after the End of Life Choice Act requires us to direct our concern and/or anger into loving action and to embark on our own counter-cultural reflections on suffering and death. This is something we can do better together, so let’s talk.
Contributor: Jonathan Robinson, Pastor of Musselburgh Baptist Church, Dunedin, and Teaching Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Otago.
An excellent free resource is provided by Baylor University, “Christian Reflections” which has articles, art, songs, book reviews and study guides on a number of topics, including aging, death, and suffering. It has diverse contributors and there is plenty of material there for a sermon series or two, small group studies, or your own exploration.
A recent book on this subject is Todd Billings, The End of Christian Life, (Brazos, 2020). Blurb: “a theologian and cancer patient invites you to discover how the surprising, countercultural path of embracing your mortal limits can enliven true Christian hope in a death-denying age.” Confession: I haven’t read it yet (although I plan to), but it’s had great reviews.
A friend of mine, Isaac Soon, who is a Bible Scholar in Canada recently wrote this online article on whether the Apostle Paul was disabled. This is a good, informed, easy to read example of what I mean by challenging our health and wealth understanding of the gospel (I have read this one!).
What other resources do you know of? Please share them in the comments.
Other articles in The End of Life Choice Act series: