Family Tragedy

October 27, 2014

Beloved, we are reeling from the sudden and tragic death of our nephew Matthew, of a head injury sustained in a car crash Friday night. We have traveled to Southern California to be with his parents and sister where the accident happened, and are helping out as we are needed. Services will be held in Albuquerque, his hometown. Thirty years old, Matt was a talented actor and musician in musical theater, a loving member of his family, and a friend to so many. He was also a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. I am clinging to the promises made real by Christ’s resurrection. My heart is broken for his loss and for the pain his parents are experiencing. I will take some time off from writing to tend to family business; I know you understand.

This blog series is coming slowly, as my readers can tell, because I am developing a bit of ADD over the topic. The sad thing is that there are too many “what ifs” and accounts to pore over, and it has gotten a little depressing to go there. And then, this morning, the high school shooting in Washington State puts another spin on the topic. Such a tragic waste, when a desperate, “bent” young person must shoot others before taking his own life. I’m sure I am not the first person to think, “If his real goal was suicide, why didn’t he just do that instead of take out so many others?”

But I digress.

Every once in awhile, you read about a case of “suicide by cop,” a scenario in which a person—who wishes to die—threatens violence and basically forces police officers to shoot him or her to death. The purpose of this action is to prevent the subject from killing others, an obvious obligation of those charged with public safety.

But it muddles the question of assisted suicide and necessitates more categories for consideration. Brittany Maynard’s case is a specific one: utilizing Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, she has acquired from a physician a lethal dose of medications she can use at will. She has announced that she will cut short her suffering from a fatal brain tumor by taking that dose on November 1. The specific question is whether society should sanction physician-assisted suicide (I say, No). Doctors, particularly, have taken the Hippocratic Oath and promised to “do no harm.” The only way around that one is to somehow reinterpret the situation such that what people find harmful (putting someone to death) is redefined as good (giving the patient an effective means to pursue his or her personal goal). Hence, the incredible discomfort with the whole idea, and one more biblical reason why I am opposed to it (from Isaiah 5:20-24).

So, in search of a biblical perspective on assisted suicide, the question comes up whether Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross, at the direct hands of the Romans but also through the political will of Jerusalem’s Jewish leadership, was a suicide by mob. In the interest of gathering facts, let us consider the information we have been given in Scripture: Jesus was well aware that death lay ahead of him. He “set his face toward Jerusalem” up to six months in advance of his crucifixion (Luke 9:51f). He spoke of “giving his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Could this be interpreted as a plan for suicide? Heavens no, for these reasons:

  1. Jesus’ death was not by his own hand, nor at his request. The fact that he knew what was going to happen didn’t make it happen.

  2. Jesus was God-in-the-flesh, fulfilling his redemptive purpose for all humankind through his birth, life, death, and (ultimately) resurrection and ascension. His crucifixion was death for the sake of others, for everybody but himself.

  3. Jesus chose to obey his heavenly Father, and therefore chose to cooperate with the Plan for our redemption. He proceeded voluntarily, mostly by remaining faithful step-by-step to the will of the Father, teaching and healing against the rules of the Pharisees. Yes, he chose to keep going, motivated completely by love for his Father and grace and truth for us. But that’s not suicide.

  4. Does Jesus’ sacrificial obedience give us permission to choose the time and manner of our death? No, this would be a huge leap of logic. There is not another person on the planet who has the standing (God’s Son, Emmanuel), the perfection (sinlessness), or the purpose (for the salvation of all people) except the One sent by God for the purpose of making sacrifice in atonement for human sin. None of us have the reasons Jesus did for cooperating with the Plan that ultimately led to his death.

What can we infer from Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross? He was truly human, as evidenced by his physical death, and all humans will die. We have no hope of any other outcome than that one, in the flesh. Technically we are not in a position to choose death, because it is already inevitable.

What human beings seem to want is control over the circumstances of death in order to avoid the anguish and suffering that often goes with dying. Jesus actually was out of control of his circumstances, having committed himself first and foremost to run the race God had laid out for him (Hebrews 12:1-3). Yes, he could have stopped preaching and healing and thereby reduce the irritation his ministry had on the synagogue officials. But he, like us, was well aware that one can control what one does but cannot control the reactions of others. Yes, he could have taken the Roman soldier’s spear and done himself in, to avoid the agony of the Cross; but then he would not have been innocent and therefore would have been disqualified from being the perfect sacrifice for humanity.

And finally, if we are really tempted to see Jesus’ death as a model for assisted suicide, keep in mind that his suffering was not lessened by the crown of thorns, the mocking, the burden he carried, or the nails in his hands and feet. He fully lived, embracing the awfulness of that manner of death; he did not run from the suffering or try to cut it short. He was conscious, even, until the end. Why not take that courage as our model and live through the life-threatening illnesses we face? That is what his first disciples did: threatened by persecution, they persisted in preaching the gospel despite the danger, and many if not all of them counted it a privilege to die as martyrs. Peter, it is said, was loathe to experience crucifixion in the same manner as his Lord Jesus and so asked to be nailed to his cross upside down. That is not about choosing death; that is about facing death with courage, as Jesus did, “to share his sufferings becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10; see also Romans 6:5).

Somehow, a therapeutic suicide designed for comfort and ease just doesn’t feel the same.

 

Next post: a pastoral perspective on assisted suicide.

As the date for Brittany Maynard’s physician-assisted suicide looms, we are invited to reflect upon the appropriateness, legality, and morality of such an act. This is not merely a personal act, because it involves others in its execution, doctors who have taken an oath to “do no harm.” [I am not saying that a private act escapes moral scrutiny, but the picture is more complicated when an aide is required.] This particular act is a public one because Ms. Maynard is advocating for legalized physician-assisted and -approved suicide as an advancement for society. This is a false and dangerous hope in my opinion.

But as important to me as the societal implication is the morality question. In order to evaluate the morality of PAS, we must go back to the source of our understanding of what is right and wrong, what God desires for us, and how we are to live as a result. To this end, yesterday I collected data points from the Bible, including examples and teachings related to the question. Today, let’s begin to assess their meaning and applicability to the question at hand.

The one (and maybe two) incidents of assisted-suicide in the Bible, the case of Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54) and possibly Saul (if you believe the Amalekite’s story in 2 Samuel 1), were conducted to shield a wannabe king from the shame of defeat, to save his honor. From a cultural standpoint, it might have been seen as the honorable thing to do, to help the king and the nation to save face. Abimelech was identified as wicked, and Saul had deep character flaws that displeased God. Their suicides, from God’s perspective, are not lifted up as good or noble.

In the New Testament, we see Paul’s reaction to a potential “honor suicide” in Philippi (Acts 16). The prison doors miraculously fly open and Paul and Silas’ chains fall loosely from their arms and legs. When the jailer sees the jail’s destruction and that the prisoners are no longer restrained and have possibly escaped, he immediately gestures his intent to take his own life, presumably for failing to do his duty. But Paul stops him, saying, “No, no, we’re here! Do not harm yourself!” (Acts 16:28). Dare we say, from this, that God cares even for the shamed government employee, and there is no need to “save face” in such an extreme manner as suicide?

Samson’s situation is a bit different; in fact, it is arguable that his final act is not suicide. The scene is dramatic and shocking. Samson, who has been blinded and sent to forced labor by the Philistines, nevertheless seeks the Lord’s power one last time to avenge the foe. His destruction of Dagon’s temple accommodating at the time at least a thousand Philistines is seen as a heroic, selfless act, not primarily as a suicide. Yes, Samson knew that he too would fall, but the destruction of a pagan outpost was the greater good.

In today’s world, we see the “ultimate sacrifice” to save the life of another as heroism.

Moving on, to evaluate assisted suicide, we must look at the reasons for the suicide itself. Ms. Maynard’s reason for planning the end of her life is that she fears the undignified and painful course her brain tumor will take. She wants to die on her own terms and avoid the suffering her illness seems to promise. She finds it less fearful to choose her time and manner of death than to let it takes its natural course. She literally wants to take her life into her own hands.

The Scriptures tell us, however, that our hands are not big enough to carry us. We are in God’s hands; our days are in God’s hands. In fact, we are not our own:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19f)

If Ms. Maynard believes that her life is in her own hands, it is no wonder to me that she can see only one resolution to her problem. The destruction of her life on her own terms is the inevitable result of being too heavy and significant to carry in her own strength. Her own terms include her own reasons, which involve considerations of comfort and ease of dying. This is far from heroic motivation, which by definition is selfless; this is self-serving, if not actually cowardly.

She, however, sees it as her personal and unique obligation to take care of herself and how she dies: in control. The sadness of this, to me, is that in order to believe it is up to her she must ignore the availability and compassion of a great God and Savior.

We are not our own, and God proved it with his ransom of us from the clutch of despair, sin, and evil. For those of us who know we are known and loved by God, carried and cared for by our Creator, the idea of taking what is not ours is unfathomable. Suicide is theft of a body, if not a soul. The identity of the thief might vary, depending on the situation. But a premeditated, chosen, planned act by a sane and rational human being is a sad denial of God’s compassionate ownership.

 

Washington, the state of my upbringing, passed an assisted-suicide law in 2008. The debate was vigorous—I heard about it from my Fuller students at the time—and ultimately the referendum passed. Most arguments in the public square were based on basic logic and emotion. An excellent set of arguments against physician-assisted suicide was presented by author Jane St. Clair in a series of thirty newspaper ads you can find here.

Unmentioned in this list are the many spiritual reasons against assisted suicide. Since my blog’s theme is Bringing the Word to Life, what does the Word have to say about “death with dignity” or assisted suicide? I am limiting my discussion to life-taking that involves the aid of another person. In preparation for that discussion (sorry for dragging this out), today I’d like to list the relevant biblical data that will help us sort out the issue:

God’s basic law: In the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), murder is forbidden, with or without premeditation (the word in Hebrew can be used in either context).

Only one example of assisted suicide:

Abimelech (Judges 9:52-54), assisted by his armor-bearer

52Abimelech came to the tower, and fought against it, and came near to the entrance of the tower to burn it with fire. 53But a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head, and crushed his skull. 54Immediately he called to the young man who carried his armor and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, so people will not say about me, ‘A woman killed him.’” So the young man thrust him through, and he died.

In the case of King Saul, when he was wounded and surrounded by the Philistine army, he wanted his armor-bearer to take his life, but the aide refused:

3The battle pressed hard upon Saul; the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by them. 4Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sport of me.” But his armor-bearer was unwilling; for he was terrified. So Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. 5When his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. (1 Samuel 31:3-5)

There are six recorded suicides in the Scriptures:

King Saul (1 Samuel 31:3-5—see above)

Saul’s armor-bearer (1 Samuel 31:5)—an example of the collateral damage of a suicide

Samson (Judges 16:25-30)—a heroic act primarily intent on killing the Philistines, but welcoming death as a sacrifice to that end

Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23)—the King’s counselor, shamed and defeated

Zimri (1 Kings 16:15-20)—after murdering his predecessor, within a week an uprising took over his city.

“He burned down the king’s house over himself with fire, and died—because of the sins that he committed, doing evil in the sight of the Lord, . . .”

Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:3-5)—the disciple who betrayed Jesus was overtaken by remorse and loathing. His hanging seems to be self-punishment.

People who wanted to die, but didn’t commit suicide:

Elijah (1 Kings 19:4ff), King David (Psalm 13:2-4), the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-18), Job (Job 7:11-16), the Philippian jailer who was stopped by Paul (Acts 16:27)

Biblical concepts worth pursuing in this context:

Our lives are in God’s hands (Job 1:21)

Our times are in God’s hand (Psalm 31:14f)

All our days are known to God (Psalm 139:13-15)

Choose life! (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Taking care of “the least of these” is rewarded (Matthew 25:34-40)

Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 16:19)

Paul’s submission: To live is Christ, to die is gain (Philippians 1:20-24)

If I have missed an important data point, please let me know! These Scriptures and biblical ideas are my starting points for a spiritual and biblical argument regarding assisted suicide. I would recommend reading the accounts of the individuals listed, and I will post next on the teaching points with those stories as a background.

[After two days of jury duty, during which I was not selected for a three-week trial, I am finally coming back to the topic of physician-assisted suicide. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers while I was otherwise occupied.]

One of my deepest concerns, from a sociological and ethical point of view, about physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is the “slippery slope” argument. In a BreakPoint broadcast this week, Eric Metaxas addressed the broader issues with historical illustrations. The sociological equivalent of “give them an inch, and they take a mile” is a reality, as evidenced by the gradual acceptance and practice of all sorts of behaviors that in the 19th century would have been deemed unconscionable. These days, when the claim is made that “this [practice] will be regulated and controlled,” as a Calvinist who believes in “total depravity,” I simply cannot buy it. I don’t buy the idea that legalized marijuana (starting out as “medical marijuana”) is harmless, that gambling is a destination recreation rather than an economic cash-cow, or that abortion is rare but necessary. As these doors have opened, so have the floodgates of crime, addiction, and/or exploitation.

But where does the slippery slope take us in the realm of physician-assisted suicide? When a right (promoted for rare, but difficult cases) becomes a social or ethical obligation (i.e. under certain conditions, it becomes mandatory that a person die), a slide downward has begun. Let’s say that the most likely candidate for PAS is terminally ill, undergoing great suffering, and pleads for relief through death. A parishioner once appealed to me, several times, to give her moral permission to end her cancer misery by taking an overdose. We had long talks about it, and she was angry with me for not siding with her wish. She did die a natural death, with her pain and anxiety under control until the end. What if PAS had been a legal option, and her family agreed to let her go that route to end her life on her own terms?

The supposed safeguards to prevent a slippery slope put many conditions on the practice. PAS, where it is legal, requires evidence that the patient is indeed “terminal,” is making a free choice, is not mentally ill, and can in fact administer the means of death without assistance. All control is completely in the hands of the ailing patient.

But wait . . . what if a person has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and loses the ability to pull a lever or take a pill independently? Someone is “needed” to do what the patient cannot. Then the situation slips from physician-assisted suicide to mercy killing (euthanasia). The patient is still in control of the decision whether or not to proceed, but cannot implement the decision because the ailment has gone too far.

But wait . . . what if a person is comatose, unresponsive and unable to render an opinion about his or her care. If wise and forward looking, that person had a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care to guide decisions about such things and place them in the hands of a trusted ally. But so far, in California at least, the decision in the hands of a loved one does not include proactive measures to end life but only the withholding of artificial support for biological functioning that cannot be sustained without it. [I know I am oversimplifying this a little bit, but hang with me…]

But wait . . . what if our town has a whole lot of elderly, comatose individuals who have no hope of recovery? Their care is exhausting limited supplies and human resources that could be spent on younger patients with whole lives ahead of them? Isn’t it okay to hasten the process of dying for the older ones, in good stewardship of those resources, and for the good of the town’s future? Aha, now all of a sudden we are in morally reprehensible territory, are we not?

P. D. James, known for her splendid Adam Dalgliesh murder mysteries, wrote a novel of a different sort called The Children of Men. The “what if” she explores in chilling detail is the discovery that all men on the planet had become infertile, and no children had been born anywhere in the world for over twenty years. As governments, schools, health care systems, and even businesses realize the reality unfolding, a deep-seated depression sets a fatal logic in motion. The elderly and infirm, the weak of society are deemed an undue burden upon the healthy who want to enjoy what little “life” is left to them. The picture of mass suicides, masked in a shroud of dignified ceremony, is haunting.

The worry is the misplacement of power to the young and healthy and the demands of a society short on resources. If ever we come to the point where it is deemed a shame to care for folks who are “going to die anyway,” we have crashed to the bottom of the slippery slope. This is why, for instance, the ministry of Mother Teresa was so very important. I think many criticized her for not setting up hospitals and actually treating the diseases of the destitute in Calcutta; but her specific calling was to spend time and effort ministering to the basic human needs of individuals who, yes, were “dying anyway,” so that they would know the love of God and the dignity of being cared for as a human being.

I know you are thinking that P. D. James’ dystopian view cannot possibly take hold, and I pray that you are right. But the trend is for a right, such as euthanasia in the Netherlands, to get out of control and reduce human beings to the active culling of the weak from the human herd. And then we all lose, because the goal then is not “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all people, but death to the weak so the strong may have power.

 

My next post will process state-sanctioned physician-assisted suicide from a theological/biblical perspective.

Suicides, particularly by those of celebrity status, make the headlines. In Robin Williams’ case this summer, the world mourned the loss of a man tormented but treated for mental illness and addiction. We will never know what drove him to his final act, but we suspect that deep psychic pain was at its root. The inelegance of his method suggests that he was as improvisational in death as he was on stage. For this we wept and wondered.

In the 1990s, Jack Kevorkian helped approximately 130 people end their lives. Under Michigan law he was convicted for second-degree homicide and served over eight years in prison. At the present time, only three states in the Union permit physician-assisted suicide, or “death with dignity,” as proponents prefer to call it.

In one of those states, Oregon, Brittany Maynard has set a deadline for her own death after learning that she has an untreatable, aggressive brain cancer. She now possesses prescription drugs, prescribed by a doctor, that will take her life “on her terms.” The date for this final act is November 1, or “when the pain becomes unbearable,” whichever comes first. Meanwhile, Ms. Maynard appears on a YouTube video to explain her decision and advocate for “death with dignity” laws in more states.

Naegeli’s law number 13: Just because something is legal does not make it moral or right.

My mind and heart ache for someone way too young to die. I hate cancer and, as a survivor myself, I hate the collateral damage it is wreaking in our midst. People have been dying since Adam and Eve, so that is nothing new and to be expected, but we fear its processes no less. Except for cases of sudden, accidental death, it is quite possible to diagnose sickness unto death or, after death, to find out what happened. As data are gathered, we even know how disease progresses in many cases. The availability of such knowledge may be helpful for discussing treatment options, but in cases such as Ms. Maynard’s, that same knowledge can raise the level of anxiety and fear to intolerable levels.

The common word used by Ms. Maynard, her husband, and her mother to describe how they felt about her decision to end her life on her terms was “relief.” Relief from what? we ask. Relief from physical pain. Relief from loss of control. Relief from a diminished self. Even relief of other’s pain, as Ms. Maynard put it, “I’m choosing to suffer less, to put myself through less pain, and reduce the pain of my family.” What she is looking for is a beautiful, peaceful, painless, dignified death.

As a pastor having attended the bedside of many dying patients over the years, I insist that death, in general, is rude and outrageous. Having said that, the most beautiful deaths I have witnessed are the ones around which a loving family has sacrificed, and served, and lovingly attended. These deaths have followed nature’s course in a final submission to the ways of God, which entail finishing this life in order to move into eternity. One person’s process of dying is an invitation to family and friends to live selflessly, even nobly, and is one universal means by which people can grow in grace and character.

What I am most concerned about, however, is the fear we might be carrying that in our dying state we become dependent, unlovable, or ugly. This is a fear of the diminished self, and its basis, I think, is disbelief that anyone could ever love me in that state or condition. It would be a very frightening thing to believe that no one in my life loves me unconditionally, for that is what fear of the diminished self is all about. We all enjoy a certain amount of love from others, but what if we fear that it is conditional love dependent on me being strong, beautiful, or healthy? And what if we simply do not want anyone to see us diminished by the ravages of disease because we fear rejection?

As an aside, I remember hearing the shocking news of Princess Diana’s accidental death in a car crash, and thinking several thoughts: We will never see Diana grow old; we will forever remember her has the young and beautiful princess. The public never saw pictures of her injured body (and it would have been incredibly bad taste to have published them). Do you not think that this is a secret wish we all have? To be remembered in our heroic youth, undiminished and still beautiful?

That would work, except that it is a colossal denial of death. Ms. Maynard desires to “enjoy [her] days, surrounded by those [she] loves,” but by choosing death she is removing herself from them and cutting short their opportunity to love her back. And she is assuming that by taking death into her own hands, she can mitigate its rudeness and outrage. She may be gone by then, but those left behind will still have to deal with death’s reality. As we all do, whether it is “beautiful” or not.

This is only the first installment on my thoughts . . . there are ethical implications, societal trends, and theological reflections to share. But once again, tomorrow I have been called back for another round of jury selection, so I don’t know if I will be able to write. I promise, my next blog will bring the Word to life and death.

 

One of my regular readers has asked me to comment here about the case of Brittany Maynard, a young woman who moved from San Francisco to Portland in order to organize an assisted suicide in the state of Oregon where it is legal.

What I would like to do with this first post on the subject is simply to offer the different approaches of two women with brain tumors, Brittany Maynard herself and Maggie Karner.

Since it is Sunday as I write this, I will not retell their stories but allow them to do so:

Brittany’s story is told in her famous YouTube video found here. (Note that the video is sponsored by Compassion and Choices, the organization that absorbed  The Hemlock Society and End-of-Life Choices in 2005).

Maggie writes a personal response in The Federalist here.

What spurred me to include Maggie’s column is that after outlining my own thoughts on the subject, I went online for research and located her account. She covered almost all the bases I had down on my paper, and she comes from a uniquely credible place. I don’t want you to miss her essay.

Tomorrow, I will add a few insights and organizing principles for thinking about planned death from a Christian perspective. It is an important issue not only for Christians but for Americans who wish to live in an ordered and compassionate society.

In the realm of American citizenship, a few things have tweaked my “blog spot” this week. The jury duty issue remains unresolved, and won’t be cleared up until at least next Tuesday. But as I have been thinking about my role as a citizen, and a Christian one at that, I have uncovered some reasons for disillusionment with our constitutional democracy. Don’t get all excited reading that statement: I am not critical of our system of government in theory, but disillusionment overshadows my optimism in practice. Some specific indicators:

  1. Many citizens show amazing enthusiasm for the privileges of American life, its constitutional protections, and its success over 238 years, but far too many of those same people complain bitterly about the responsibilities: taxes, jury duty, voting, and advocating for the common good.

  2. Party politics has become so polarized that constructive partnership to solve common problems seems rare. Unfortunately, the two dominant parties have lost common ground over the last few decades, according to the Pew Research Center. A vote cast for one party or the other (creating a majority in Congress, for example) has come to mean that middle-of-the-road issues are not going to be addressed. So few seem willing to move toward the middle of the political spectrum to get those things done.

  3. This year the deceptive ad campaigns for various propositions on the California ballot have already started. I say ‘deceptive’ because a columnist in our local paper goes through the broadcast ads with a fine-tooth comb to check facts. Honestly, the outdated, misconstrued, and accusatory content of these ads is just appalling. But people believe them, and vote accordingly.

  4. Money drives everything, and, in particular, money talks a lot louder than constructive ideas for solving problems. I find this sad and frustrating. Lots and lots of money is required to keep those stupid ads on the radio, TV, and in my mailbox. But when you look at a flyer, for instance, there is not one shred of actual content you can evaluate in order to make an informed decision. What these ads are really doing is saying, “Some of us with some money are mad as heck about [this or that] and for this reason we want you to vote our way.” Great.

  5. Freedom, one of the most highly valued American dreams, does not naturally support national unity. If you’ve got 316 million people in this country all jockeying to get their way, on their terms, you’ve got 316 million people who want to be the center of the universe. Think about it: if I have an absolute right to privacy (one form of “freedom”), for instance, I can create my own little island of self-fulfilling hedonism and close the door to responsibility for fellow citizens. In another context, if you— my CEO, my pastor, my representative, my professor—do not adopt and celebrate my ideas, I can make sure you lose your job and are shamed into obscurity. In one fell swoop, supposedly in the name of freedom many peoples’ freedoms (free speech, free expression of religion, freedom of assembly, etc.) are being intimidated into silence and inaction, dividing the nation and making unity impossible.

  6. Tolerance, demonstrated brilliantly by our forebears in American history, has been reduced to a particular definition of what constitutes tolerance. And great intolerance is shown to those who believe and act differently that that definition allows. Two hundred years ago, tolerance was demonstrated by respect for an opposing point of view even as one argued against it. A vigorous debate was seen as good for problem solving and tension relief, but in the end compromises were made for the common good so that unity could be achieved. In general, I would say that Americans have become very intolerant, unable to conduct civil debate, and blind to common causes. It is only “what’s in it for me.”

You’ve heard a recurring theme in this piece, I hope, of common ground and the common good. I’m going to have to dig up the quotation, but one of the recent popes has said that no political/economic system has any potential unless God is recognized as the ultimate authority under which our laws and practices are ordered. So my conclusion is that the American problem is fundamentally a spiritual problem. As long as human beings must rule their own universe, they are going to be greedy, demanding, and unreasonable people. But when people submit to God, they get practiced at looking outward beyond the realm of self-satisfaction and into the public square where they can be champions of the common good. The unity I believe we used to possess, but have lost, is made possible not by everybody adopting the same specific doctrine but by everybody acknowledging a real dependence upon God, who is good and just and strong and able to help them steward the nation.

 

My husband and I have been hugely entertained and encouraged by the messages received in response to yesterday’s non-rhetorical question: What if a trial attorney were to ask you, “Pastor, would you be willing to put aside your Christian faith in order to be a fair and impartial juror?” My blog today could quote them all and fill this page, and I may still before the day is over. But the question itself deserves and requires some consideration simply for what it says about our culture.

Part 1: Would I be willing to put aside my Christian faith?

I first consciously committed my life to Christ forty-four years ago, though I was raised in the faith since early childhood. My faith has been tested through many challenging periods: rejection by fellow students for being the wrong brand of Christian; pressure from clergy feminists to radicalize me; marriage and the bearing of children (Martin Luther himself called the celibate priesthood a piece of cake compared to being married and supporting a family); the attempt of “clergy killers” to undermine my pastorate; theological education, both received and taught; rejection of my orthodox/biblical arguments within the judicial process of my tribe, the PC(USA); and survival of lung cancer, to name just a few. But to quote one of Barbra Streisand’s songs, “I’m still here.”

I have had many invitations to “put aside” my faith, and so far, I have not and I cannot imagine a situation in which I would ever want to, including jury service. Putting aside one’s faith compartmentalizes it (thank you, Debbie Berkley), but my faith is a way of life and as indispensible to me as the air I breathe (thank you, Jim Berkley).

From a theological point of view, is it even possible to “put aside” one’s faith as a temporary gesture? I really don’t think so, because I am not my own and was bought with a price; my faith really is not mine to put aside because God cannot be put aside. I belong to God. My life has been redeemed by the Savior. It would be extremely ungrateful of me to set aside the gracious investment God has made in my life.

If one wants to talk about putting aside one’s faith permanently, that is another discussion altogether, and one we need not get into here.

So, my answer to this part of the question is “No.” (Thank you, Steve Niccolls!)

Part 2: Does my Christian faith make me unfair and partial?

Getting out my dictionary, a few definitions are in order:

“Fair” is “in accordance with the rules or standards; just (based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair); free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.” “Impartial” is “treating all people and groups equally; not partial or biased.” “Bias” is “a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly.” Note that bias is not merely determining that a person or idea is better than others, but that it leads to treating some more harshly or leniently than others. I’ll be the first to claim that there are some really bad ideas out there, and the people who hold them may be ignorant, foolish, or malevolent. But simply holding dumb ideas is not a crime, and holding lofty thoughts does not prevent a person from doing illegal things. One overcomes bias by holding every person to the same standard of behavior, regardless of their background, race, or religious belief.

The same should go for jurors. The only time I have sat on a jury, one of the jurors declared in our deliberation that he “never believed a word a cop said, because they all lie.” It’s one thing to believe that cops lie; it’s quite another to dismiss the testimony of this police witness without running it through the same tests we do for all other testimony. That juror was showing bias and partiality. It took a full day to get him to recognize his prejudice and look at the testimony of all the witnesses consistently.

In the Christian faith, fairness is a tricky concept. We hear about it most often in our unguarded moments of claiming that God isn’t fair. This accusation is slung usually at the moment we didn’t get our own way because God somehow wasn’t treating us the same as others. But I think we can say God is fair and he is good. In fact, the Scriptures claim that God does not show favoritism (Romans 2:11). God has set up the rules and applies them consistently. By all rights, God is justified in holding us all accountable for our failure to live up to those rules. The gospel proclaims that to fulfill that justice Jesus Christ took upon himself the punishment of our sin. If you want fairness from God, then you have to let go of grace, which is unmerited favor!

By “unfair” does an attorney think a Christian juror might be too soft on crime or too harsh in judgment? Or worse, that a juror might not seriously deliberate because everybody deserves forgiveness? An attorney who thinks that about Christians has already shown bias. There is nothing unsavory about a Christian’s approach to the juror’s job, which has everything to do with hearing the evidence and evaluating the arguments of the prosecution to determine whether the accused has actually committed the crime.

So, to answer the question, can I be fair and impartial? Yes, I can!

Part 3: By your question, are you saying that my Christian faith is at odds with the judicial process and the rule of law?

“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).

Seems to me this says that a Christian is an asset to a jury, because heavenly wisdom helps a juror hold to the belief that the accused is innocent unless proven guilty. It enables a clear eye to view the evidence, a patient ear to hear the testimony, an impartial heart that judges all people by the same standard of law, and submission to the civil authorities (Romans 13:1). And you want me to set aside my faith? I really don’t think you want that.

But, having said all that, here’s the answer that my friend Bruce Byrne would give:

“I’m not sure I could set aside my Christian faith, but if you think it would help me be a fair and impartial juror to assume that the universe (including time and space) came into existence of its own accord, that the universe just happens (against all odds) to be fine tuned for life, that life was and is merely an improbable accident, that intelligence arose from that which was non-intelligent, that consciousness arose from a complex arrangement of unconscious matter, that morality is a relic of a non-moral evolutionary process (thus making moral right and wrong not merely relative, but illusionary), that there is, therefore, no moral lawgiver behind morality, no ultimate judge, no truth beyond brute facts, no grounding for laws beyond social convention and, therefore, no basis for concluding that things like murder, theft and lying under oath are actually wrong, then sure, I’ll give it a try.”

 

After two postponements of my service for medical reasons, finally on October 1 I appeared at the county courthouse for jury duty. The long wait to be called into the courtroom was ameliorated by a pleasant, spacious jury assembly room and the discovery that a friend was also in my group. At 9:45 we were finally brought into the courtroom, “Department 8” to be exact, where we were given the standard civics lesson on the importance of jury service.

And then I found out that the trial for which a jury was being selected was a three-week criminal trial. Oh, no! I had cleared my calendar for three days, but not three weeks! The judge explained what circumstances constituted a hardship, and what did not, and my business trip next week did not pass muster. After all the preambles, and with high expectations that I would be dismissed simply because I am a pastor (assumed from previous experience), I still hoped I would be there only one day. Instead, the judge explained that my group was Group 3 of the jury pool, and the attorneys were still working on voir dire for Groups 1 and 2. Group 3 was instructed to come back the following Tuesday (yesterday, October 7).

Now things begin to get a little wacky in my mind: On the one hand I want to be part of our judicial system and do my civic duty. I don’t even mind dealing with the particular accusations to be evaluated in this trial (it sounds like it could get ugly). But what am I to do with my future plans, which must now be considered “on hold” until I am dismissed from this jury pool (still hopeful thinking)?

I returned to the courthouse yesterday after feeding a ten-hour parking meter with quarters. The hallway outside the courtroom was packed with people. We were told Groups 1, 2 and 3 were all here to continue the jury selection process. It was standing-room only, while the judge explained that Groups 1 and 2 still had not been screened completely, so Group 3 was instructed to go home and come back next Tuesday, October 14. I asked the clerk in the hallway if we would be informed if the selection were completed by the end of the day. She said yes, we would be called if that happened, but then added, “There’s no way, though. This jury selection process is not going well and will take forever. Your business trip next week is [toast].”

So this morning, after giving the court time to call me that they did not need me after all (hope springs eternal), I cancelled my trip to the Common Ground Christian Network meeting outside Atlanta next week. And I am left thinking, okay, could I have gotten out of this civic obligation some way?

The talk around me in the courthouse hallway included speculation about how one could get out of service. I was amazed at how often the option to lie about bias, hardship, or health was mentioned. I was surprised by the number of people who do not want to participate in the judicial system for one reason or another (inconvenience, sense of futility, disillusionment, or financial impacts). Some expressed concern about their employers’ reactions to their absence, even though penalties for jury service are illegal. My overall impression was that jury service never comes at a good time for anyone, it does involve sacrifice, and it seemed socially acceptable to do anything to avoid it.

Despite all this, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to get out of jury duty. I want to serve, because I think juries need pastors every once in awhile. Those of you who know me from BC days are aware that judicial process is fascinating (even when aggravating) to me. But aside from that, it is one simple opportunity to put up or shut up, as an American citizen.

Given the difficulties of finding a jury for the present case, the chances that I will be called are pretty slim. But eventually, those attorneys are going to run out of preemptory challenges and a jury pool, and twelve people are going to land in the jury box eventually. Will I be one of them? I still must wait a few days to find out.

In the meantime, I am trying to get my sermon done for October 19. The text is Hebrews 12:1-11, which includes verse 7: “Endure trials for the sake of discipline.” Double meaning aside, even this convoluted process can be used by God to help me learn something, to grow in my faith, to mature in discipleship, and to share in God’s holiness (vs. 10). Now that the hard part is done, cancelling my visit to Atlanta, I choose not to grit my teeth and grouse until the trial thing is over. I choose instead to act responsibly, honestly, and diligently, as difficult as that might become, simply because I am a Jesus-follower who welcomes a challenge as a teachable moment. And since I also believe that nothing is wasted in God’s economy, even this experience will be useful in the future.

Tomorrow: What if a trial attorney were to ask you, “Pastor, would you be willing to put aside your Christian faith in order to be a fair and impartial juror?”