Vol 11 No. 6 A Trio of Controversial Topics

Today’s newsletter was to be on congregational discernment. But it would be impossible not to comment on the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision on assisted suicide and the furor, or should I say fury, over Barack Obama’s Prayer Breakfast comments about the culpability of historic Christianity. We will deal more fulsomely with congregational discernment at a later time, but we are going to try and tackle the other two, because they are particularly interesting this week.

I find the whole question of end of life care and decision making to be so random, poorly framed, and lacking in mature reflection that it should make any one of us wary to enter the discussion. As an example, the disarray in the Canadian Medical Association about a framework for this area astonishes one, as they have had years to prepare for this… I am not asking for conclusions from the CMA, but I do expect that when they are officially speaking about this matter, that they show some indication that they have reflected deeply about it. Further to that, that such a serious decision would be decided by the Supreme Court and not by some arena with a far greater input from society at large is stunning. I would remind you that this particular decision is an opportunity for Christians. From the founding of the Christian faith in the first century (may I cite the Baylor University Sociologist Rodney Stark and his book The Triumph of Christianity) Christians and those they cared for, whether fellow believers or non-believers, lived longer (literally, by checking dates on gravestones) than their counterparts in a pagan / secular society that had disregarded the full value of human life. This court decision is an opportunity for Christians to once again take up the sacred task of end of life care with prayerful, compassionate, and medically astute engagement. I need to declare that I have not grappled personally with this issue of assisted suicide. Neither I nor my family, nor friends, nor even acquaintances (with but two peripheral exceptions) have been part of my experience in the area of assisted suicide or the urge to grapple with the question.

My own opinion about the Supreme Court judgement is like parents telling children “go play in traffic, make up your own rules, and don’t get hurt.” I think this is very difficult ground, but I want to share with you just a brief perspective from Andrew Coyne, who up to this point has certainly not been a friend of faith, to my knowledge. Here are some of the things he has said:

One measure of the eerie complacency of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Carter v. Canada (Attorney General) – the euthanasia case – is that it spends more time on the question of where to award the costs of the case than it does on the implications of its decision. Six pages on costs; three pages on where the hell is this all leading?

Having found a way to throw out the law – did anyone doubt that it would? – the Court then refused to rule on a number of other questions put before it: whether the ban deprived the disabled of their right to “equal treatment” under the Charter, for example, or whether the harm it caused was “grossly disproportionate” to the good it did. That may seem like magisterial restraint. In fact it is a kind of myopia. For all of these questions and more are likely to be back in front of the court before long, and all of the fine distinctions on which the Court insists a new law might be constructed will then surely dissolve.

…nothing in the words “grievous and irremediable medical condition,” the court’s other requirement for the exercise of this right, suggests that death is near, or even likely. It is enough that the condition be incurable; it need not be terminal.

What would there be, then, to prevent a person suffering from chronic depression, but unable for whatever reason — cowardice, perhaps — to take his own life, to ask someone to do it for him? Nothing that I can see. Are we to say that a person suffering from the psychological pain of depression — intolerably, as they see it — cannot “clearly consent” to someone killing them? On what grounds?

Indeed, on what grounds could any limit be placed on this right? Once we have embraced the idea of suicide, not as a tragedy we should seek to prevent, but a right we are obliged to uphold; once the taking of life has been converted from a crime into a service — “physician-assisted death” — to be performed at public expense; once we have crossed these sorts of philosophical and legal divides, how is it to be imagined that we could stop there?

I bring us back to this judgement as an opportunity for Christians to engage in the kind of care from birth, to inevitable end, with kindness, quality care, encouragement and co-journeying with those who suffer and those who love them. Terrible burdens are placed on those who are responsible for the decision making process, whether they be families, friends, medical personnel, or church communities. There is a profound need for we as Christians to see this as opportunity to serve and to be seen as a safe place. I know this is an inadequate beginning, but I wish to begin nonetheless, and look forward to the unfolding conversation. We must be fully part of the ongoing dialogue so as to protect who might be vulnerable in this new legal / socio environment.

Another controversial issue occurred last week with the comments of the American President Barack Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast. I am not going to dwell a lot on it, I think it is important to read Obama’s Prayer Breakfast remarks from 2014, which were much more generous, and included a personal comment on his own faith.

And here we give thanks for His guidance in our own individual faith journeys. In my life, He directed my path to Chicago and my work with churches who were intent on breaking the cycle of poverty in hard-hit communities there. And I’m grateful not only because I was broke and the church fed me, but because it led to everything else. It led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. It led me to Michelle — the love of my life — and it blessed us with two extraordinary daughters. It led me to public service. And the longer I serve, especially in moments of trial or doubt, the more thankful I am of God’s guiding hand.

This year’s Prayer Breakfast comment has been praised by some and pilloried by many. It is not as gracious as in the previous year, and has a particular emphasis on criticising the Christian faith and some of its heinous crimes in history, which are somehow comparable to extremist Muslim behaviour now. The issue is not comparing two sets of disastrous behaviour. The concern is, as a Christian, to whom am I accountable for my behaviour and how may I respond to the behaviour of Christians who behave badly?

The emphasis in both Prayer Breakfast speeches is on religious freedom and tolerance, which goes back to early Baptist beliefs. This year’s speech is full of scripture, but does not cite the text or context of those passages, which is a pity. I appreciate Obama’s call to personal reflection and humility about our own crimes and misdemeanors as Christians as we decry the behaviour of others. He is right on that specific topic and history, sadly, would not disagree with him. But I have a serious objection with President Obama, the reasons for which might surprise you.

Obama referred to racism, the Crusades and the Inquisition: “People committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” And they did. Please remember that this newsletter has repeatedly praised the involvement of Christians in love, service, humility and kindness to others. Repeatedly. Today is a commentary on another aspect of our behaviour. Obama’s take on this topic may simply be some kind of secular disclaimer, which serves no one well. Look to the past for injustice – although Jim Crow and its racism is still present from Winnipeg to Vancouver, from Georgia to San Diego. My complaint is Obama misses out on the last 70 years of human history. What about Rwanda, the rise of Nazi Germany, my own roots of Northern Ireland and the Troubles, residential schools, and the unraveling of Yugoslavia? In each and every case, either the acquiescence or active participation of Christians caused the death of many. Let’s get a little closer to home in current history, President Obama. It will drive us to our knees, and humility doesn’t begin to describe some of the shame we must feel. ISIS and radical Islam is a real and present threat; to try and dilute that threat and the radicalisation of Muslim youth, whether it be in Canada or elsewhere, would be folly. As we rise up and resist such evil, we must be as ready and as effective to make sure our own behaviour never repeats the past.


In Christ,

Jeremy Bell