The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last year that laws that banned Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) violated the Charter rights of Canadians and suggested conditions under which PAS might be administered so as to prevent abuse. A government committee recently released a report suggesting expanding those conditions, even before any legislation to that effect was proposed.
Bruce Clemenger has since written numerous editorials in Faith Today that see the Supreme Court ruling, which overturned a previous ruling that had prohibited PAS, as the triumph of personal autonomy over the sanctity of life. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, of which Clemenger is president, is campaigning against PAS, and the implication is that they do so based on Christian values. So I’ve been thinking about this, and wondering about where we get our Christian notion of the sanctity of life. Let’s take a look.
The Sanctity of Life
sanc·ti·tyˈsaNG(k)tədē/nounnoun: sanctity; plural noun: sanctities
- the state or quality of being holy, sacred, or saintly.“the site of the tomb was a place of sanctity for the ancient Egyptians”
When we talk about the sanctity of life, particularly in relation to life and death issues such as PAS and abortion, we tend to mean “inviolability” as the definition above suggests. Life, we hold, is of ultimate importance – it is inviolable, trumping every other consideration.
Now, aside from the fact that we violate this all the time with war, the death penalty (thankfully not in Canada), and how we allocate foreign aid (yes, we have the resources to prevent millions of deaths annually, but find it too expensive), I’m not entirely sure where we get this from in the first place. So I did a search for “what does the Bible say about the sanctity of life?” and found a list of 19 verses that are held, at least to the crowdsourced views of openbible.info, to support the concept of the sanctity of life. While they seem to affirm the God-given nature of life, that’s not the same thing as sanctity or inviolability.
The Bible most certainly affirms that human life is good, and even that life in general is good. The first chapter of the Bible describes the creation of the world, and at every stage God declares that it is good, declaring at the end that it is even very good. But note that God said that light and darkness were good, as were land and water. God declares his creation good because it is his creation, not necessarily because it is alive.
There are many verses that talk about the way that God has created human beings, knitting us in our mother’s womb, etc. Indeed, God has created us (at least indirectly), and that speaks volumes about the importance of our lives. There are also verses that talk about children as being gifts from God – as a father, I affirm this. There are verses that talk about God’s interest in our lives, that he knows everything we do and say, has counted the hairs on our heads and values us more than sparrows. This is all good and true, and shows that God values human life. But that’s not the same as holding it to be inviolable.
Because even though God created us, and gives us life, God also takes life. A lot. The Bible is full of instances where God kills people, and tells people to kill people. And death is still sad, and God even mourns, but that doesn’t stop death. God can stop death, but doesn’t. Life, to God, is a good thing, but far from inviolable. God does prohibit people from murdering each other, but the penalty for murder is death.
I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.
“Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.
Knowing that death happens, and that it’s unfortunate and even terribly grievous, is a powerful thing. However, it does not stop God from taking lives, nor does it stop God from telling people to take other people’s lives. To help keep this in perspective, remember that even though God does not stop death, God does have the ability to give life, and plans to resurrect us all (the righteous and the wicked alike).
Where, O Death, is your victory? Where is your sting, Hades?
I want to clarify that I think that God takes death very seriously. God doesn’t say “meh, I’m going to resurrect them anyway – no big deal.” God mourns death, and even hates it, working to overturn it on a more permanent basis. It is in the first sense of sanctity, then, that I think God views life; not that it is inviolable, but that it is holy and inherently good. But there are also times in the Bible when people recognize that death may be better than life: Job notes that it would be better if he had not been born than to live with the calamity and illness he was experiencing, and several prophets (I think of Elijah and Jeremiah, off the top of my head) wished for death; Jesus tells hypocrites that it would be better for them to have a millstone tied around their neck and thrown into the sea than to mislead children and make them into hypocrites; and for Paul “to die is gain.” Each of these are very different contexts, with Job and the prophets emphasizing the terrible nature of their current reality, Jesus revealing the unrealized yet still terrible nature of the hypocrites’ current reality (and actions); and Paul pointing to the glory of resurrected life to come. So life is not just violable, but sometimes worse than death, at least in our perceptions and sometimes even in reality.
But what of autonomy? Clemenger holds that personal autonomy has triumphed over the sanctity of life, and many argue that this is a shift toward liberal values (usually contrasted with Christian values). But what does the Bible say about autonomy?
A search for “what does the Bible say about autonomy” doesn’t come up with a nice list of verses like my previous search did, however misdirected those verses might have been. Instead, it comes up with scores of articles about “the horrendous sin of autonomy” and “the corrosive effects of autonomy and individualism.” These articles refer to the fact that autonomy, in the sense of choosing for ourselves, was the original sin, and that Christians subject themselves to God’s will.
What those articles miss about the “sin” of autonomy is that the sin involved as abuse of that autonomy, not the autonomy itself. God was the one who placed the forbidden fruit in the garden (for no revealed reason) and instructed Adam and Eve not to eat it, seemingly for the purpose of testing them. Human autonomy is not only God-given, but it’s crucial to fulfilling our God-given purpose as stewards of the earth. It is so important to God that we be co-creators rather than drones that God gave us the autonomy to disobey and refused to revoke it even when we disobeyed. In fact, rather than retract our autonomy in order to protect human life, God instead wiped out all life except that of Noah and his co-voyagers. At least in Genesis, God pretty explicitly values human autonomy over life.
But why does God value autonomy so highly? It has to do with the nature of love and genuine relationships. Chosen relationships are better than forced relationships, and love itself cannot be forced. God desires a loving relationship with all of creation, but human beings are (or at least appear to be) the only creatures capable of loving God back in a way that involves actively choosing to love God. Other creatures embody many features of love, such as the loyalty and devotion of our pets, but humans have the ability to direct their loyalty and devotion, in spite of everything, toward God if we so choose.
Those who say that autonomy is sinful, then, are not referring to our autonomy itself, but rather to our choice for autonomy over God. When God gives us commands to obey, we can choose to obey and thereby to love God, or we can choose not to. By choosing not to love God, we are in some sense choosing our own ability to choose over the one who gives us that ability. Theologians sometimes differentiate between “freedom from” and “freedom to”, noting that a more positive understanding of freedom is not to focus on what we are free from (which may include the will of God, should we choose to disobey), but rather to note that we are free to do the good things that God asks of us. The point of “freedom to” is that we are not coerced to be good, but we can choose it, and that choosing to do what we are asked to do is not at all the same thing as being coerced. The sin of autonomy, then, is to focus on “freedom from” without the balance of “freedom to.”
In regard to PAS, there are elements of freedom from and freedom to. People want to be free from pain, confusion, and slow but inevitable decline, and knowing that death will come sooner or later, like Job want it to come sooner. Unlike Job, most people do not experience a supernatural windfall of God’s blessing at the end of their lives, and we’ve gotten very good at prolonging the duration of people’s lives without actually enhancing or maintaining the quality of those lives – so people in chronic pain or dementia suffer longer before they die. People in those types of situations, like Jeremiah, want their suffering to end; and Christians in such situations, like Paul, look forward to a better future (and sometimes want it to hurry up). At the same time, we now have the technology to end people’s lives “safely” (that is, with no chance of screwing it up and without inflicting suffering). This allows us to control the time and method of our death. The question is, does this give us the freedom to die?
I don’t know. I have incredible sympathy for people suffering from chronic pain, mental illness, and dementia – things that can not always be cured or even properly controlled by modern medicine. I also wonder at the wisdom of prolonging life past our ability to live well, and shake my head at the lack of proper palliative care available in Canada to help people make informed decisions with real alternatives about how their final years will go. I think we need to be clear that human beings have an inherent and inalienable right to life, but not a responsibility to live it, at least in any laws that I’m aware of in the world today.
Christians need to be careful about where our values come from: I value life, and I’m even okay with saying that life has incredible sanctity. I may even be okay with life being inviolable, I’m still working that out. But if our values are labelled Christian, they should reflect Christ and the Bible – and at least in this case, we may have gotten it wrong.