Assisted Suicide: Is it about life or death?

Posted: August 1, 2009 by Kristy Harding in ReEmergent Church
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By Kristy HardingDignitas clinic

Two weeks ago today Sir Edward and Lady Joan Downes ended their lives at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich. By now the story has been sufficiently sliced and diced by the press that the shock has worn off for those of us who didn’t know the couple personally, but the question remains: Shouldn’t the church be able to look at these deaths and say something more helpful than, “Sir Edward and Lady Joan died, and this is sad, sad news“?

I thought about this for a while this morning after I confronted this question. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the Downes’ family and imagine how any statement from the church might effect them. I thought about the legacy that Christians have had with “statements” about such things, and what came to mind were picketing and long, impersonal dictates in legal language that no one can really understand. I thought, “This issue doesn’t need a blog post. It would really be better if I just said nothing.”

Then I thought about it some more and realized that I was wrong. This issue doesn’t need a silent church. What it needs is Jesus speaking to each person, to the deep heart-questions that are really at the heart of these issues. Because, honestly, for those of us across the pond, is this about Sir and Lady Downes, really? Is it even about assisted suicide?

I think it’s about our own fears and hurts about death. The church has been remarkably silent about the “Downes issue” but Christianity has a lot to say about death. Some churches might say it quietly, privately, and with great dignity, but I do not think that takes away from the power of the Christian message about death.

When a family requests an Episcopal funeral, they hear about a God Who Is in the places where the world is in pain–bringing life, even in death. I believe the church can give no more powerful statement on assisted suicide.

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.

For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s possession.

Happy from now on
are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit,
for they rest from their labors.

(Book of Common Prayer, 492-493)

  1. Matt Horan says:

    This is a good pastoral word, Kristy. How often has the church failed by responding with marches and picket signs when it should respond with empathy, compassion, and service?

    I find this issue so distressing. I have visited many people in the hospital who are beyond frail–people with no reasonable hope of being made whole again on this side of eternity. I have hovered over more than one bedside and wondered aloud in prayer if the best thing wouldn’t be the sweet release of death.

    But sometimes death does not come. Our advancements are capable of keeping human bodies “alive” indefinitely. Or sometimes, while a person suffers, the most vital body systems just aren’t deteriorated enough to give out yet.

    And sometimes, against all odds, people recover. It’s a rarity, but it happens. New treatments prove successful. Or sometimes, doctors scratch their heads as terminal cancers vanish from one MRI to the next.

    I wish there was a way to let terminally suffering people go on to the next chapter. But the question then becomes, of course, “Where do we draw the line?” How sick must a person be to qualify for assisted suicide? How grave their injuries? Who will determine when someone qualifies? It all seems so gray, so thus far, it’s a road that I’m afraid to go down. I’m very eager for someone to give me a good answer to the “line” question, but I don’t think the answer is upon us quite yet.


  2. Kristy Harding says:

    It’s a tricky question–and a heart-wrenching issue. What if we reframed it? Right now medicine is really focused on prolonging life as long as possible, but what if we asked the hospice question: How can medicine (and the church, for that matter) help individuals have a good death? That feels to me like it gets more at the heart of the issue and might be more addressable?


  3. James says:

    The quotation from the Book of Common Prayer above you cite reminds us both of the love and lordship of Jesus. The following thoughts came to my mind on the issue:

    1. Your pastoral question is a good one. The church needs to reaffirm that God loves all and provides eternal joy for those who will merely believe in faith and seek through their stumblings to make Jesus the Lord of their life. The church also needs to be the loving community it is intended to be and provide friendship and loving support to people in pain.

    2. Our society generally views pain (whether emotional or physical) as an evil that has no redeeming purpose. Though pain is not a good, the redeemer of the universe can redeem our pain make some good come of it. The church needs to support those in pain and help them to approach it redemptively. I do not say it lightly, but the Bible indicates that pain can be an opportunity to join Jesus in his sufferings, and thus draw closer to Him.

    3. Words are tricky and can cause us to recalibrate our moral bearings when we should not. “Assisted suicide” is simply suicide that another person is complicit in. The issue is simply when is suicide permissible. Whether the act is in a clinical setting is irrelevant.

    4. The Book of Common Prayer quotation above speaks to the Lordship of Jesus. As the BCP and Paul say, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. However, the act of assisted suicide is clearly an emphatic declaration that “I am the owner of my life” and thus to belongs the decision of when I shall end it.

    5. As Christians and as His Church, we should examine this matter from the viewpoint of God’s ownership of us and his love. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”


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