Lord Carey, Assisted Suicide, And What The Christian Position On Whatever Social Issue Actually Is

A former Archbishop of Canterbury has demonstrated how preposterous the application of “conservative” and “liberal” labels is to Christianity by coming out in favour of the Assisted Suicide Bill proposed in the London parliament by Lord Falconer. What is notable about his position, aside from the fact that he published it in The Daily Mail (!) is that it makes only passing reference to God. A friendly reminder from an etymological bore might have helped. Theology means God-talk. Christians come to their conclusions theologically. I will leave the reader to conclude what should be made of this article.

Yet even if you do not share my strange obsession with a 1st Century wandering Jewish teacher, you surely will notice that Carey’s entire article is argued from the spectator’s perspective. “Anyone who has had to watch a loved one…”, “I visited her regularly in hospital. I saw the ravages of the illness on her body…”, “When I visited her again, I must have looked very miserable…”, “Even the most devout believers will find their faith tested by the sight of a dying person in torment…”. It does not auger well for the justice of this law that already the actual vulnerable, suffering person is objectified in our very important and oh-so-considered gaze.

What we are to make of the claim that in standing up for the sanctity of life “the Church could actually be sanctioning anguish and pain — the very opposite of the Christian message” is surely that the particular Christian message now advocated for by this “conservative” former bishop is not one that leads to martyrdom. For Carey, martyrdom is incoherent. For Carey, in other words, Christianity is now an embarrassment.

He even utters these words:

The Church must start to face up to the reality of the world as it is.

The reality of the world as it is that the Church has to start facing up to is the reality of a world where God became man, was nailed to a tree and forced to asphyxiate under his own body weight in the glare of a middle eastern midday sun while the soldiers of empire stood guard. The Christian message is not heedless of the reality of anguish and pain in this world. It declares that God is not heedless of it either.

Whatever about the “shameful blot on our country’s great reputation for caring for others” that Carey alludes to, the combination of drastically reduced medical funding, overworked medical workers, and exhausted administrative systems means that the sheer economic rationale of assisted suicide will prevail. Judging from Carey’s authorial perspective in the article, the decisions will be made in the vast majority of cases informed by the onlookers. Who wants to be a burden? Nobody. Assisted suicide makes sense.

That people think they can live in this world without burdening the other human beings they share space with is the clearest sign of all that we live in a post-Christian age. Forget Katy Perry kissing girls and liking it. The culture warriors were raging and all along their compadré was waiting to betray them.

I wonder what Carey means when he says: “There must, of course, be safeguards against abuse of the so-called right to die. It would be outrageous if it were extended beyond the terminally ill.” If as he has granted, the right to die is a human right, on what grounds do we exclude people from carefully constructed legal processes? Forget my over-intellectual fears about how medical doctors serve today as secular priesthood and have authority vested in them that means that laws like this are bound to be corrupted. You just need to know a trace of 20th Century philosophy to realise that we are creatures born towards death. Heidegger will haunt Carey until his dying day. Life itself is a terminal disease. The reality of the world as it is is that only the Church dares to disagree.

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It leaves the soul heavy to go to war with such arguments. I am bone tired of Christians saying things in public that they wouldn’t have the courage to say in my local church. Whether that is Carey and his pro-suicide position or whatever bigot who has said preposterous things about Muslims in a Belfast megachurch, it just gets tiring.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland sent out a letter when the Stormont parliament debated (the certain to fail) gay civil partnership bill. They did not send out a similar letter when in September 2008 the Irish government guaranteed not just the liabilities of privately owned banks but the bondholders as well. We rail against gay rights while we ignore economic injustice on a gross scale. Even without the blatherings of Carey, there is a reason why the wider world doesn’t respect us.

A brilliant core of people within the Church of England this week successfully extricated the church from its investment in Wonga, completing a process that began with the founding of rival companies – credit unions in effect – that will, over time, drive payday lenders out of business. But this huge ethical success will get no coverage compared to the ramblings of an unelected old man who has in the past defended Pinochet and the arms trade.

We just don’t know what we’re about. We confuse being in the room with powerful men as having power. We confuse having power with being powerful. Politicians exert power by getting elected. Christians exert power by getting humbled. This distinction is lost on us. So we campaign about the things that scare the powerful men in our midst and we ignore the business our Master has set for us: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

I’d like a break from churches led by people who are more at home in London debating chambers than council estate food-banks. I’d like some downtime so we can consider how it is we react to these changed days. We can’t hold back assisted suicide, especially with articles like Carey’s being published. We can care for our dying though. We can love our sick and we can include our disabled and we can have patience with our own frailty, confident that running the race that the Lord has set us will mean hardship. We can’t (shouldn’t?!) hold back gay marriage but we can practice fidelity in our own relationships, hospitality to everyone who comes through our door and simple things like accountability over what we look at on our computers. We can’t stop abortion, but we can adopt and foster and spend our money on the care of people who are pregnant and aren’t entirely sure that they want to be.

We can be the church. We don’t have to be the world.

The Lord has given us a job to do, and it’s not to make sure history comes out right.

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It might leave the soul heavy to read these caffeinated thoughts of a distressed disciple. So let me close with three pieces of art that touch on Carey’s theme. The first is the best song I have heard this year, by Jason Isbell, called “Elephant”. No one dies with dignity, we just try to ignore the elephant somehow.

The second is a poem by G.M. Hopkins, a man who knew pain and anguish. “Spring And Fall : To A Young Child” has been set to music by Natalie Merchant and it captures the inner dynamic that drives us to try to legislate death away. The little girl is grieved by the passing of Autumn, but it is for herself that she mourns.

Finally, Dylan Thomas’ famous poem, read by Dylan himself. When I was first becoming a Christian, I was also first reading Thomas’ poetry. “A Refusal to Mourn” closed with lines that I took up as a slogan for myself. “After the first death, there is no other.” Whatever Dylan meant by them, they mean for me that I will die just once, at the time appointed by the Lord and even then, it will be well with my soul. Here I have presented the much more directly relevant “Do not go gentle into that good night”.

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Your Correspondent, Hasn’t he learned anything from that guy who gives sermons at church… Captain what’s-his-name?

One Reply to “Lord Carey, Assisted Suicide, And What The Christian Position On Whatever Social Issue Actually Is”

  1. First. Thank you. I’ve read some things over the last couple of days that have also challenged and worked towards my humbling. You are contributing to this as well. So I say thank you, but in my typical half-hearted way when I don’t want to be humbled.

    Second. I’ve been finding that the language we use is so often strewn with, “Lets stop them from doing (abortion, gay marriage, illegal immigration, taking our guns, etc)”, or “Let’s be tolerant of (gay marriage, suicide, abortions, etc)” rather than saying “Let’s get into the shit pile that is much of life with one another and really try to love people rather than just ‘tolerating’ their choices, throwing money at their problems and hoping they go away, and wanting to live in a individualized way that keeps others shit from getting on my coat or exposes my own shit.” It seems like it is about having power over another, exerting ourselves over someone else so we feel like we have accomplished something, rather than doing just that work we have been called to do and letting God exert his power in ways that may not be obvious to us at the end of the day, month, year, or even our lives (Abraham may have wondered some of this at the end as well). It seems like it gets back to the root of much of my own sin, a pride in triumphing over another, whether by my being right (more likely) or by way of might (less likely). Its certainly easier to do this. It is much easier as I explore it more and more to tell someone that their gun-loving ways are wrong, than to actually live in a way, in my equally privileged and comfortable life, that speaks toward the real power of turning the other cheek, of not seeking to strike out before I am stricken, of being humble rather than exalting myself.

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