Science in Christian Perspective
LIFE, DEATH AND HOPE
Reflections of Two Ministerial Colleagues
Cary N. Weisiger, III
Kent F. Meads
Menlo Park Presbyterian Church
Menlo Park, California
From: JASA 25 (June 1973): 60-63.
THE RULE OF LIFE
Cary N. Weisiger
Exodus 20:13 is the sixth commandment: "You shall not kill." This is the rule for life. This may be the most difficult of all the ten commandments to' treat and to apply to modern situations. Many perplexing questions arise when you consider this commandment in all of its meaning. Some questions are old and some are new.
Basically, the commandment is a prohibition of murder. When a private person deliberately and with malice goes to take the life of another, he is breaking this commandment. The Book of Genesis gives us the reason why this is a sin: "Whosoever sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made
man in His own image." There is that in human life which is of unique importance because of the values that Cod has set upon human life. Therefore when the first murder was committed by Cain, Cod had an inquisition for that murder and he said to Cain: "The voice of your brothers blood is crying out from the ground." What a vast wail must have gone up to Cod through all the ages and must be going up to Cod now, the crying of the blood of those who have been slain in murder.
Of course, the commandment calls for the preservation of our own life and that of others. Therefore, there is such a thing as criminal negligence which is a kind of murder. In the very book of Exodus which enshrines the Decalogue there is a requirement concerning the man who knows that he has an ox that is dangerous to people, and the law states that if the ox, known to be dangerous, gores a man or woman to death, then the owner of the ox is guilty and must be put to death. The applications of this principle to modern life are almost endless. You think immediately of the person who is drunk and is driving a ton or two of steel and rubber and glass down the highway and who takes another life because of his carelessness. You think of failures in modern industry to preserve the life of workmen by proper safety devices.
I have heard people make some very harsh remarks about Christians who have committed suicide as if they had committed the unpardonable sin. I do not take that position. I think I have known some very devoted Christians who in moments of utter desolation of mind and spirit have taken their lives, and I would apply to them the words of Jesus on the cross as He looked at the soldiers who were doing Him to death and at others around Him and said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Suicide is, of course, a violation of this commandment. But I believe it is forgivable.
This prohibition of murder occurs in the context of a total law which did require at times capital punishment and at times that the nation go to war. I do not intend to say much about capital punishment except that there is Old Testament justification for it and perhaps some New Testament justification in the 13th chapter of Romans where Paul speaks of the magistrate not bearing the sword in vain. Personally, I do not crusade for capital punishment, and at the same time I do not easily take the other position that it should he universally abolished.
As to war, the church has historically taken the position that there may be occasions when it is necessary for the nation to wage war. These occasions come under the rubric of what is "just warfare." In the beginning, it seems that the early Christians felt that one could not even be a soldier and a Christian at the same time.
Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, said that if any Christian were a soldier, he must give up his place in the army. But in the third century this position was modified. You have also the instance of Cornelius and of other centurions wlso came to Christ who were not required to stop being soldiers, and again you have the statement of Paul in Romans 13 where the magistrate is said to bear the sword and not in vain, as a minister of God.
Today, there is much uneasiness on the part of those who in a church like ours have believed that there may he occasions for just warfare, because of the horrible brutalities and seemingly endless implications of cruelty and destruction in any kind of warfare. I think that more and more as a church we are stressing the obligation of Christians to be a peace minded people, people who must work almost to any lengths to avoid the horrors of war. And yet the mere preservation of human life is not the supreme value, and therefore, we are in this dilemma still with regard to war.
Some states have already liberalized their laws as has California so that a woman in the early weeks of pregnancy, after consulting a doctor and psychiatrist, may decide to terminate a pregnancy for reasons of inconvenience or shame. The involvement may not he one of risk to her life or the life of a child.
I personally favor abortion only for the gravest reasons. For example, I favor abortion when the life of the mother and the child is unquestionably threatened because of infection or the possibility of kidney failure or heart failure on the part of the mother. I favor abortion when the life of the mother alone is at stake on the principle that the higher life already existing takes precedence over the unborn life, and on the principle that the life in relationship to a family should be preferred to a life that is not yet in that kind of relationship. I am inclined to favor abortion when the very best medical advice indicates that, because of the use of a drug like thalidomide or because of German measles, Rubella, the fetus seems to he terribly injured.
The questions that arise concerning this practice and the sixth commandment have to do with the donor and the recipient. In other words, you have to be sure that the donor has indeed irreversible brain damage and cannot live before you take that heart. The donor has the right to die and not to be killed by a doctor who is eager to use his technique. Therefore a neutral medical team should make the decision concerning the tie facto death of a possible donor. The other question concerns the recipient and whether in the haste of performing the transplant there is the adequate matching process of the white cells in the blood which argues for life and not for death on the part of the recipient. It seems that this kind of surgery should be performed only in consultation and in a very public manner, and, where a Christian doctor is involved, with much prayer.
Care of Dying
You have also the dilemma that arises in the care of the dying. I'm inclined to favor the position taken by many doctors and theologians that there is a valid principle of noninterference with death. When only extraordinary means of supporting life keep the patient going and maybe even torture the patient, and all the evidence points towards irreversible unconsciousness, it seems to me permissible under God to withdraw these extra-ordinary means of supporting life that the patient may die in dignity.
There is also the principle of indirectly hastening death by the use of painkilling drugs. A doctor in compassion may administer drugs that have a toxic effect in accelerating death although the direct intention is not to bring on death. It seems to me that this may be valid under God.
I cannot endorse the principle of administering death-causing agents. I do not believe in euthanasia or mercy killing. I think God has not given us that right. Again if I were a Christian doctor living in the midst of this kind of thing, I believe that in every instance where I might be making a fatal decision, I would certainly seek the consultation of respected colleagues and consultation with the Lord.
There is also something to be said about the principle of sacrifice, of giving your life for another. This introduces a higher principle than the one that occurs in this commandment. You think of a doctor experimenting upon himself in the effort to find a specific for yellow fever and dying in that cause for humanity. You think of an explorer realizing that the food supply of the party is scanty and saying to the party, CJ believe I'll go outside for awhile," and deliberately perishing in the ice and snow in the hope that the party might yet be saved. You think of a missionary going to Erromanga in the South Seas, called in church history "the martyr isle", because there was such a succession of missionaries murdered there. You think of him laying down his life in the hope of a gospel triumph. And all you can say about these instances is in the words of Jesus, "Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends." You think of the time when Jesus was about to he born and how the angel said to Joseph, "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." At the cradle there was the shadow of a cross; Jesus came in order to die and to give His life a ransom for many and that we, believing in Him, may have eternal life.
Mere mortal life is not the supreme value. The supreme value is a right relationship with God and the righteousness of the kingdom of God and the possession of eternal life. So what do you think this commandment means, "You shall not kill," if you withhold from a friend or loved one the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, and if you never have a word of witness to others about how Jesus came to save us from our sins?
(I am heavily indebted to Ethics and the New Medicine by Harmon L. Smith, Abingdon Press, 1970, for the treatment of modem dilemmas.)
Cary N. Weisiger, III Menlo Park Presbyterian Church Menlo Park, California
DEATH AND HOPE
Kent F. Meads
Many millennia ago, job asked a very important question, "If a man dies, shall he live again? (Job 14: 14) The answer to job's question is found in I Coy. 15. Paul's main concern revolves around two ideas-"death" and "hope". In I Cor. 15, two words continually reoccur: "death" and "raised"; the latter I see as characterizing hope.
Death is not a particularly easy subject to treat. Yet if Lewis Mumford's observation in The Myth of the
Machine: The Pentagon of Power that our culture is death-oriented is correct, then it becomes a topic which we must discuss and come to terms with. But not only for that reason; we must come to terms with death because we all face it. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us of this, when he says, "It is appointed unto
man once to die I Cor. 15:22 also makes this affirmation, when Paul says, ". . . in Adam all die." As we confront the subject of death, we in America face many restraints. Death is considered a taboo area. This seems to he true for Christians as well, for in the decade just preceding the present one, there were only two major treatments of this topic from the Christian perspective. Not only is it considered taboo, but any discussion of death is thought to be morbid. Therefore, few dare introduce the subject into a discussion.
Eugene Ionesco's plays show a continual concern and emphasis on death. His play, Exit the King,1 has as its main theme the subject of death, The characters play the roles the way 20th century man handles death. One queen wants to tell the king he is about to die, another queen favors silence, and the doctor stands aloof though finally succumbing to the pressure of the first queen. And the king thinks lie has the power to stop or at least control his death. Ionesco said concerning the theme of death in this play, "I told myself that one could learn to die, that I could learn to die, that one could also help other people to die. This seems to me to be the most important thing we can do, since were all dying men who refuse to die. This play is an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying."' When lie was further questioned if the play' helped him, he said, it didn't help him at all.
Ioneseo's honesty suggests that death is fearful, at times manageable, but also basically unmanageable. Elisabeth Kiibler-Ross, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago as well as a Director of Consultation at the University's hospital, has spent much of her time with the dying, and in directing seminar courses where medical students, nurses, aides and ministers sit in on discussions with those who are terminally ill. In her book, On Death and Dying, she says, "Death is still a fearful, frightening happening, and the fear of death is a universal fear even if we think we have mastered it on many levels."
Christians somehow think they can skirt around death and many have never come to terms with their death. "Psychologists have amassed an impressive body of evidence to prove that Christians often suffer from a fear of death, and that on this particular question they in no way differ from men in general."2 One would think that of all places, the Church would provide the atmosphere where Christians could openly discuss their fears and apprehensions about death; yet generally speaking, this is not the case. Christians apparently judge each others spirituality by the fearless way they face death, and no one wants to be seen as less spiritual than someone else. Attempting to settle my attitude toward my own death releases me to enjoy life in a new way. It's at this point that Martin Heidegger has made an important contribution. "Heidegger highlights the significance of death because it wrenches us out of our unthinking participation in the commonly accepted valuations of life and forces us to decide for ourselves about the meaning of life." In other words, a man who clearly sees his own finitude, who realizes that he is going to die, will make the most of those life hours that are his by God's grace. This leads to two questions: (1) Why do we avoid facing death? and (2) How has man traditionally faced death?
To the first question, Dr. Ross's answer is most helpful. She says, ". . . dying nowadays is more gruesome in many ways; namely, more lonely, mechanical, and dehumanizing; at times it is even difficult to determine technically when the time of death has occurred." The reason death has become more gruesome in terms of loneliness is easily realized. In time past the person died at home surrounded by his friends and family. Death was not given a mystical aura. In many eases the dead person could be seen in his own bed after death. That is rarely the case today. Rather, the dying man is rushed away to a hospital by people he does not know, to be cared for by strange faces who most likely will be concerned only that he stay alive and will not really care about the man. On the other hand, our technological capabilities have made death more mechanical and dehumanized. People no longer have the right to die, it seems. One can he in a coma for months and still be considered alive. In times past a similar ailment would have meant death. Ethically, the topic of life and death and modern medicine is just now being discussed by Christians. Many questions can be raised in this area. But if we acknowledge our fear of the loneliness and dehumanization that accompany death, we start down the road of resolving or at least facing our own finitude.
Man's Concern with Death
Arnold Toynbee lists nine ways that man has tradi tionally reconciled himself to the fact of death. Hedon ism, or the philosophy of "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" is one of the more obvious ways men have faced death. The TV program "Run For Your Life" best exemplified hedonism. As you may recall, the plot centered around a lawyer who learns of his impending death within a year. He decides that he will see and do the things he has failed to do in the past. "But hedonistic solutions of death, of course, are illusory." It is impossible to eat enough or drink enough and thus push the thought of death totally out of ones mind.
Because the hedonistic solution is illusory, some have concluded that life is so wretched that death is the lesser evil. Pessimism then becomes the answer. One index of pessimism is suicide. It is not surprising to read that the suicide rate in America is highest among those in the 17 to 30 year old bracket. Our youth look at what surrounds them, conclude that death must be better than life and then take their own lives. But the pessimistic solution is only a "cop-out".
Thirdly, man invents physical countermeasures in his attempt to circumvent death. In recent years the new area of cryonics has emerged, i.e., freezing the dead so that at a later date those who have been frozen may be defrosted and brought back to life when our technology develops the skill of reviving life. Such physical counter-measures allow only a temporal solution which at the end of the road is actually no solution at all. Another way man attempts to circumvent death is by winning fame, and then having that fame passed on to succeeding generations. Man has also reconciled himself to death by attempting to merge himself with Ultimate Reality.
But in each of these cases man really attempts to avoid facing the meaning of his death. And in some way death appears as a natural phenomenon in each of these views, From the Christian view death is not normal. Paul depicts it as an enemy which will he overcome only when Christ returns the second time. Because death is abnormal, even when we know a loved one faces imminent death, we are always crushed or totally surprised by the death of that one. Some one has called death a "thief" and rightly so, because death steals us away from those we love as well as taking those we love from us. We also need to remember that "biological death is not the Great Finitude. That description applies instead to the judgment of Christ, before which we shall all stand (Rom. 14:l0)."
Finally, we Christians, while facing the judgment of death, also have a word of grace and hope which is the central thrust of our passage, namely, resurrection. Paul sets forth our hope as centered in Christ. Christ's resurrection is the guarantee that you and I will be raised, ton. Christ is the "first-fruits". This term announces that our hope has a foundation. The first-fruits are just what the words imply-in an agricultural setting some of the fruit appeared before the harvest; according to the Mosaic law this was given to God (Ex, 23:19; 34:26), because it was an indication of the fruit that was coming. Paul applies this imagery to us. Just as Christ has been raised by the power of God, Paul declares fearlessly that we who know Christ need not be overwhelmed by death because there is hope: resurrection.
1Claude Ronnefoy, Conversations With Eugene Ionesco, p. 79.
2E. J. Carnell, The Case For Biblical Christianity, ed. Ronald H. Nash, p. 175
3Thcmas W. Ogletree, "From Anxiety to Responsibility: The Shifting Focus of Theological Reflection," New, Theol. No. 6 p. 58
4Christioninj Today, Ministering in a Death-Oriented Culture", Calvin Milled, Nov. 19, 1971 p. 12
Kent F. Meads Menlo Park Presbyterian Church Menlo Park, California