THE TRINITY, RECEIVING CARE, AND THE SO-CALLED “DUTY TO DIE”

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[Below is an article I wrote for the St. Benedict’s Anglican Catholic Church newsletter in 2002. It is a theological response to Professor Jonathan Hardwig’s position that terminally ill elderly people may have a duty to die, in some cases even a duty to commit suicide, if they are a burden to their loved ones. (Professor Hardwig is Chairman of the Philosophy Department, The University of Tennessee at Knoxville). I sharply disagree, and below is an argument against Hardwig’s position based on the doctrine of the Trinity.]

It is interesting that the longest season of the church year, the Trinity season, is focused on what seems to be the most esoteric doctrine of the Christian Church.  Not only is the doctrine of God being three persons in one nature a mystery, but it also seems so distant from our everyday lives.  If I am struggling with a moral dilemma, I may consult what scripture and tradition say, may ask myself what the Christ-like thing to do would be, but I normally do not contemplate the Trinity to help me make a decision.

But since God, our Creator and Lord, is God in three persons, surely this has implications for the way we live our lives.  For example, that fact that God is three persons who love and communicate with each other is a model for the love we should have for each other as human beings.  This love within God Himself can give us insights into how we should behave towards others.

There are some situations which test the limits of relationships, of love, and of faith.  One such situation is when one of us or someone we love becomes seriously ill.   Serious illness hits us hard, for we realize our limitations more keenly than in almost any other situation, and we may have to face the possibility of being much more dependent on others than usual.  Illness is particularly hard to bear when we are dependent on those we love the most, and we may feel that we are being a burden to them.  Those who write about medical ethics have had much to say concerning the moral obligations of the health care providers who care for the seriously ill patient.  But more recently, one finds, in the medical ethics literature, a position which should be deeply disturbing to everyone, especially to those who are orthodox Christians.  This position concerns the moral obligations of the seriously ill patient, and asserts that when a person is old and has lived his life, and is ill to the point of becoming a serious burden to his family, he has a “duty to die,” including the duty to commit suicide.  This is actually set forth as the “loving” and “unselfish” thing to do.  Although this is an extreme position, many people say, “I don’t ever want to be a burden to my family.”  While this is understandable—who would want to be a “burden” to anyone—it can too easily lead to the position that “I WILL NOT be a burden on my family, and I will not put my loved ones in a position of having to take care of me.  I will NOT put myself in the position of being dependent on others!”  To be concerned about the burden loved ones would bear taking care of me when I’m sick is consistent with love and with Christian ethics.  To refuse care from loved ones due to such a fear is not, and if followed consistently, leads ultimately to the extreme position that there are situations in which we have a “duty to die.”  There are a number of reasons that the latter position is not Christian—one is simply that the family may not think it is a burden to care for someone they love.  Even if they did find such care a burden, there are more than enough good reasons to show that the attitude of so many Americans (who often seem to value “self-reliance” and “personal autonomy” above everything else) on this issue is fundamentally wrong.

An understanding of the love relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost can help to see what is wrong with a refusal to receive help from loved ones.  As some recent theologians and philosophers (such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Fr. Norris Clarke) have pointed out, the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is one of mutual giving—and receiving.  The Father, the Source, gives Himself, His goodness, love, and being, fully to the Son and Holy Spirit; the Son and Holy Spirit receive this gift gratefully, and freely give their love, sharing their goodness totally with the other members of the Trinity.  It is not that the Son or Holy Spirit lacks anything–they are fully God, and lack nothing; the point is, that in God Himself, there is not only giving between the persons of the Trinity, but gracious receiving.  If the love within God himself, who has no need, includes receiving—how much more should we, who are finite and weak and have so many needs, graciously receive gifts from God—and from other people.  Human beings should both give and receive from each other—both giving and receiving are necessary parts of human love.  The baby’s receiving care from his mother and father is just as much a part of love as their giving in taking care of his needs.  Applied to the issue of illness, the sick person’s gracious receiving of help from loved ones is just as much a part of love as the loved ones being willing to take care of the sick person.  To say “I’m not going to put my loved ones in the position of having to take care of me” is not giving them the opportunity to love, and may speak more of pride and selfishness rather than love.  It fails to give loved ones an opportunity they may want because they love their family member.  It fails to be Christ-like, for Christ’s loving the Father and Holy Spirit includes receiving as well as giving.  Surely we do not want to claim to be better than God!  Let us, then, be willing to help those we love, no matter how inconvenient it might be to our so-often spoiled, rich lifestyle.  But let us also be willing to receive care, to love our families by receiving care, if we, sadly, find ourselves in a situation in which we need it.



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North Carolina: Inhospitable to Animals

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Some of the weakest laws concerning animal welfare in the country are found in the state of North Carolina. Dogs and cats are routinely killed in cruel gas chambers used by county animal control organizations. Dogs and cats are placed into the chambers, the lid is closed, and the gas released. One can hear the howls of the dogs as they gasp for air. A law to forbid gas chambers and require human euthanasia via injection failed to get past committee in the North Carolina state legislature.

In addition, the state allows county shelters to routinely get away with violations, but threatens private no-kill shelters with the most inane regulations. The state is always a hair’s breadth away from closing no-kill shelters. Any attempt at reform is opposed by several county animal control offices.

The state legislature is considering–again–this fall, a bill that would regulate dog breeding in way that is more humane for dogs. This bill has been opposed by special interests, including the hog farm industry.

Speaking of hog farms, pigs are reared in close quarters in factory farms, with sows genetically modified to continually produce more offspring than they could via their natural design alone. Hormones increase their muscle mass above what their bones can handle. The same sort of treatments are given to chickens, who are also packed in close quarters rather than being free range. Those who are unhealthy are killed on the spot. Hog and chicken factory farmers routinely say that “those hogs [or those chickens] are treated better than your dog or cat at home.” They are lying–and they oppose every attempt at reform of their industry.

Why is such treatment of animals accepted by many in North Carolina. I believe it is due to the unhealthy influence of toxic Fundamentalist Christianity, a twisting of orthodox Christianity that holds that animals are the slaves of man. Ignoring the Bible’s claims that man is a steward of the animals, such Christians believe that man has the right to treat animals in any way he sees fit. Christians should read Matthew Scully’s book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy for an animal-friendly interpretation of the Christian tradition. A person does not have to deny some priority to man to accept that non-human animals also have intrinsic value. The twisting of Christianity to justify cruel treatment of animals is evil. I believe that if this toxic religion were replaced with a Christian orthodoxy that affirms the value of non-human animals, the people of North Carolina would be far more willing to pressure legislators to pass laws that protect animal welfare. If this happens, even the powerful lobbyists of factory farms and the influence of unethical county animal shelters can be stopped. The state of North Carolina can become hospitable to animals–but only if we the people of North Carolina change our hearts and our actions toward animals–and then lobby legislators to do the right thing. Stop gas chamber killings of animals. Stop fighting no-kill shelters every step of the way. Support humane dog breeding. Stop the abuses of factory farming. It can be done.

Susan Atkins, Justice, and Mercy

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The debate over whether to release the dying former Manson family member Susan Atkins from prison is filled with confusion. Partly this may be due to the strong emotions involved; after all, Ms. Atkins did not show mercy to Sharon Tate. But some of the comments I’ve read on various news agencies’ web sites are either emotional rants or reveal a failure to understand the concept of mercy.

Since I cannot influence emotional rants, I will focus on the topic of mercy. Some people will say something like this: “Susan Atkins does not deserve mercy! She participated in the brutal murder of a pregnant woman and shouldn’t receive mercy herself.” Now the right response to such a claim is to state the obvious: “Of course she doesn’t deserve mercy.” Who does? Mercy is, by definition, something undeserved. If mercy were deserved it would no longer be mercy. Now it is true that when someone hurts us, we usually show mercy when that person repents of the wrong and apologizes, as well as takes steps to heal the broken relationship. Even then, justice may ask that we continue to punish the person–and yet most of us don’t continue to punish. We show mercy–not because we don’t believe in justice, but because we do.

In his argument against the “humanitarian theory of punishment,” a view that calls crime a disease and claims that the cure for crime is treatment, C. S. Lewis points out that this theory is not as “humanitarian” as we might believe. If crime is a disease, we can literally do anything to cure that disease–mercy has no place in such a system. But if crime is due to people’s evil moral choices, then they deserve punishment. And if they deserve punishment, there is room for clemency and mercy. It is only because Susan Atkins deserves punishment for her terrible crimes that anyone would bring up the issue of whether to show her mercy by releasing her from prison.

Should she receive mercy? That is a difficult question given the horror of what she did. However, all the evidence supports the view that she has been a changed person, at least since 1977 when she converted to Christianity. Although I cannot see into her mind, it seems to have been a genuine conversion leading to a real change in her life. Whether she is released or remains in prison until she dies will not change the facts of what she did, and I doubt that a desert theory of punishment can even coherently say what she really deserves for her crime. But she doesn’t deserve mercy–that would have to come as a gift from California authorities. And although she doesn’t deserve mercy, there are factors, such as her repentance and changed life, that can and should influence the decision for or against mercy. Although emotions are high in this case, I am surprised by the reaction of many Christians, especially of the conservative variety (among which I count myself, although I am not a Fundamentalist on the Bible)–I have read comments very close to hatred, comments such as “I hope she dies in prison and rots in hell.” I wonder if the founder of Christianity who said that those who show no mercy will receive none would agree with such comments. Although I am not in the position to vote on Ms. Atkins’ fate and although I realize there are many good people who will disagree with me, if I were voting I would take the route of mercy and support Ms. Atkins’ release.

Postscript: Susan Atkins was not released and died peacefully in the prison infirmary. She did some terrible things, no doubt. But I do not doubt that she was sincerely penitent. Requiescat in pace.