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When we come to die

Revd Andrew Hill

I wasn’t rung up by the papers and asked if I could recite the Ten Commandments(1). Had I been I would have confidently answered ‘No’ and either told the reporter about the man who asked for a commandment to remember while he stood on one leg(2) or quoted Jesus’s new commandment(3);or mentioned the golden rule. I might even have launched into a lecture about how any one of the Ten Commandments has been qualified by so many exceptions as to make their recitation not just meaningless and hypocritical but also a poor foundation for moral argument. Take ‘thou shalt not kill’:

thou shalt not kill - except when you want to show that killing is wrong(4)

thou shalt not kill - except in self-defence

thou shalt not kill - except when you are hungry(5)

The history of defined codes of behaviour and practice can be summed up in just two one-syllable words “Yes, but . . .” where ‘yes’ is the code and ‘but’ the exception. I want to address one particular but - ‘the euthanasia but’ when someone who is greatly suffering and terminally ill seeks to be benevolently killed. According to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey(6) nine out of 10 people now favour euthanasia in desperate coma-life-support-machine-never-expected-to-regain- consciousness cases like Tony Bland and Janet Johnson. Living longer and dying more publicly, we want more space to own our own deaths before high-tech medicine, unknown doctors and impersonal cash strapped health boards take over completely. These factors have brought how-to-die issues into public debate. Where do churches fit in? The at-large image of religion and churches is that they are anti-euthanasia on principle; and certainly if you look at their official public statements and listen to official spokespersons this image would appear confirmed. The BSA Survey confirms that older people are more likely to be anti-euthanasia than younger people, not because they are old, but because more of them go to church and hear the message(7). But it is possible to make a less prohibitive religious case. Let me try. Let me gather a bundle of three New Testament statements:

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly(8)

Love one another as I have loved you(9)

We are members one of another(10)

Given the way the world is - and any faith position must work in context - human life is an overlapping series of mini-lives linked generationally by birth and death. Death can no more be excluded from life than can birth; and so the notion that somehow death is a final enemy opposed to life is simply not on. Death is part of life’s abundance. And if it is true - as many people of faith hold - that we die into some larger life then the sooner or later time of death is less relevant than its worse or better quality.

Jesus’ commandment ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ is a variant of the widespread Golden Rule. In its John’s Gospel context the rule indicates that we should not just model our behaviour on Jesus, but on God as lived in Jesus, and ‘God as lived in Jesus’ makes his own decisions. So we too should be prepared to make our own decisions even if it upsets the Big Daddy life-is-God’s-gift-therefore-only-God-can-take-it-back argument. We ourselves are grown-up, loving and responsible decision making people.

But we are also, as Paul reminds us ‘members one of another’; and being grown-up, loving and responsible people means recognising that our actions and behaviour have consequences for others. Now, it’s at this point, particularly, that I begin to notice that the religious perspective has something special to add to the secular debate. Most secular pro-euthanasia argument assumes the fallacious notion of human autonomy; and I think its fallacious because when last week I met with the widow and children of a young man who had killed himself, the widow said to me: if he had known the upset he has caused, he’d never have done it. Now, that’s not an argument for not doing it, but it is an argument for taking full account of the effect of one’s actions upon other people with whom one is interdependent for ‘we are members one of another’. Recent British research gives some support to this religious perspective. Survey work at Glasgow University suggested that among supporters of v.e., doctors want the patients to perform the act, and patients want the doctors to(11), which rather suggests that the British feel that euthanasia is something which patients and doctors should do together. The University’s draft bill would seem to recognise this human relationship by recognising that trusted doctors actively administering euthanasia are not mercy killers liable to charges of murder, but professional helpers at responsible, considered, self-choice suicides.

We need one another when we come to die, and would have gentle hands prepare us for the journey.(12) Amen

1 Deuteronomy 5:6-21, Exodus 20:1-17.
2 told by Sophia Lyon Fahs in From Long Ago and Many Lands (1948) p.23.
3 John 13:34.
4 Deuteronomy 13:8-10, Numbers 35:16.
5 Deuteronomy 12:20-22.
6 D Donnison & C Bryson ‘Matters of Life and Death: Attitudes to Euthanasia’ British Social Attitudes (1996) p.169. The actual figure is 86%.
7 Donnison & Bryson pp. 171-2.
8 John 10:10.
9 John 15:12.
10 Romans 12:5 Ephesians 4:25.
11 from an informal remark by Professor Sheila McLean.
12 George Odell Singing the Living Tradition 468.

From the sermon in St. Mark’s, 9th February 1997

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