Do They Know What They’re Doing?

The public spectacle of the Terri Schiavo case is deeply painful to me. Anyone who has faced the gut-wrenching decision to intervene with extraordinary measures as a loved one faced the end of life, or to allow natural processes to take their course without such intervention, knows that there are no easy, comfortable answers. It’s the greatest moral dilemma we will ever face in this life.

So,
as I write I’m not insensitive to the powerful emotional issues that are
involved in this case. In fact, I’m moved to write because this great human
dilemma is so personal to all of us. This case is fundamental to our
understanding of life and to our responsibility for each other. It sends a
shudder down my spine when I think of the public spectacle that has
developed.

This a vast gray area in
which, before God and with each other, we struggle with our hopes and fears, our
memories and our dreams, our faith and our doubt, our guilt and our brokenness.

It is deeply personal and
profoundly spiritual territory. It involves a dialogue between our spiritual
selves and the Creator of Life. We work with knowledge that is imperfect and
provisional, as is all human knowledge. And we are impelled to make decisions
that have ultimate consequences that cannot later be reversed or changed. This
is also unfamiliar territory.

We
seek the solace of the Psalms (I will lift up my eyes to the hills–Psalm 121)
and the wisdom of Paul (Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces
character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us–Romans
5). We hear the comforting words of Luke the physician (Do not worry about your
life…consider the lilies, they neither toil nor spin, yet Solomon in all his
glory was not clothed like one of these–Luke 12) and we are plunged into a
conversation with God that cannot be contained by language because it goes
beyond mere words and somehow involves us at the core of our being. It is in
this conversation that we understand the enduring wisdom and intensely relevant
value of holy scripture.

We know
that the Psalmist has experienced the pain we are going through. We hear Paul
expressing our own inarticulate groans before God (We know that the whole
creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation,
but we ourselves–Romans 8). We understand the utter limits of our frailty
when we hear Job cry out to God in frustration (I can’t stand my life. I’m
putting it on the table, all the bitterness of my life–I’m holding back
nothing–Job 10).

When we are
confronted with the limits of our own humanity, we are as close to God as we
will ever be, and the scriptures reveal to us how others before us have come
before God facing the same limits and struggle to understand life’s purpose
before God. In our exposed state God comes to us and holds us in a loving
embrace, telling us that despite the pain, the loss and the sense of isolation,
we are not abandoned, even in times like this (Can a mother forget the infant at
her breast, walk away from the baby she bore? But even mothers forget, I’d
never forget you–never. Look, I’ve written your names on the backs of my
hands–Isaiah 49).

But for us it is
uncharted space and as we enter it we engage our hopes and fears, we remember
life with our loved one at its fullest and most meaningful, and we recall our
unrealized and now-broken dreams. We experience guilt at things done and left
undone, and we struggle with what is right, faithful and true, knowing that even
with the best medical information available, our knowledge is incomplete and
provisional.

Yet, we also sense
that life is more than physical processes and involuntary reflexes. We know that
the physical body of our loved one is just that, the container that once was
animated by spirit and personality that is no more; that, in fact, the spirit
may be seeking release to transition to a plane that we in our limits cannot
know.

The core of Christian teaching
is about the spirit. We speak of the spirit of a person; of the soul, the
afterlife, heaven and the Holy Spirit. We can’t define these, but generations
have sought to understand how life on this side is connected to life on the
other side. Yet, when confronted with the imminence of this transition, we
understandably shrink from it and revert to that which we know, the physical,
even if the physical body before us does not contain the energy, creativity,
personality and intellect that represents the fullness of God’s gift of life
that it once contained.

It takes
courage, respect and utter humility to confront our human limits and act
responsibly in this situation precisely because we are painfully aware of our
own fallibility and limited knowledge. It is this humility, however, that can
help us through an incredibly difficult passage. If we enter into this
terrifying decision respectfully, sensitively, honestly and prayerfully, we can
learn, grow and develop our capacities as a child of God. We can even become
stronger in faith.

Therefore, the
machinations to keep Terri Shcaivo’s body in a persistent vegetative state are
not merely painful to me, I cringe when I see politicians seeking to justify
their involvement in this
situation.

I will go so far as to
say this is shameful, harmful, dangerous and, quite possibly,
sinful.

It is shameful because the
politicians have turned an intensely personal, sacred, private decision about
life and death into a public spectacle. Crowds of strangers who know nothing of
the intricate intimacies of Ms. Schaivo’s medical condition stand curbside at a
hospice chanting “Keep Terri alive” as if this were a highschool pep
rally.

Do these people understand
how supremely arrogant it is to inject themselves into this deeply private
decision? Do they grasp how the circus atmosphere they create violates the very
sacredness of human dignity they purport to uphold? Don’t they get it that
standing on a street corner holding signs and chanting slogans cheapens and
denigrates a decision of such import that it should be considered quietly,
privately and prayerfully?

It’s
harmful because the public case built by right wing politicians from Senator
Bill Frist to Representative Tom DeLay inaccurately states the circumstances.
Surely they know that replacing the feeding tube in Ms. Schiavo is only
preserving her body in a persistent vegetative state, it is not preserving life
as we know life–sentient, expressive and meaningful. They add nothing to our
understanding of meaningful quality of life when they define it in simplistic,
self-serving, politicized sound
bites.

It’s also dangerous for the
precedent it sets; that Congress has the right to intervene in our lives in the
most private decision that we are ever called to make. Who wants Sen. Frist or
Rep. DeLay looking over their shoulder and calling the shots when we must
consider how to care for a critically ill wife or husband, father or mother, son
or daughter? Do we really want government involved in this private family
matter?

I don’t. I want my family,
my physician and my pastor in dialogue with me. I don’t want the county social
worker, the Senator or the Congressperson within a country
mile.

Why is it sinful? Because it
risks idolatry. It idolizes the physical body as an ultimate expression of
life. As creatures of God we are infused with spiritual and physical
properties. When these are in balance our lives are as full and whole as we can
ever be in a physical universe. When they are out of balance we become
distorted and we lose perspective. We risk honoring one above the other.

The scriptures remind us that when
we give ultimate honor to the physical, even if it represents our highest
spiritual aspirations, we risk idolatry. At some point in a tragedy such as
this, we know that we must allow our loved one to move on, even if doing so is
crushingly painful to us.

When we
know that we cannot reasonably expect them to return to a life of quality and
that to prolong a physical process is to prolong suffering, isn’t it time to
say, “enough?’ This is the critical point, and it can’t be decided by strangers
on the curbside or politicians far removed from the
bedside.

The absoluteness of the
political dialogue about Ms. Schiavo in her current condition is, at the very
least, debatable. To take this sacred decision and make it a political issue is
to arrogate the political process to idolatrous result.

I started this essay by saying this
pains me. I end by saying it scares me. These politicians scare me. I can’t
tell if they don’t know the limits of their own knowledge, or if they do know
and they don’t care. Either way, this is dangerous territory we’ve entered.
Making absolute claims for knowledge that is, at best, finite and provisional is
frightening. I don’t know if they are taking political advantage of the tragic
circumstances of a young woman in a persistent vegetative state, as some have
claimed, but if they are, it is beyond conscience and surely justice and
compassion will prevail.

I’d feel
better if I thought they know what they’re doing. I’d feel even more so, if I
saw even a glimmer of humility.

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