Life Before Death

Let our society truly choose life, with all its competing moral claims and obligations to minister to the weakest among us.

Forrest Church, Senior Minister of All Souls Church (Unitarian) in New York City, delivered the following sermon on Easter Sunday 2005.

The great Christian ethicist Rheinhold Niebuhr instructed his ministerial students at Union Theological Seminary to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Half a century later, his quest to insure biblical relevance seems almost quaint.

With the Bible making daily headlines--with senators and congressmen routinely citing God and the scriptures when shaping public policy--these days anyone seeking spiritual guidance can go straight to the newspaper, beginning on page one, on through the Nation section, and continuing through the op/ed pages. Given the near-satanic twist fundamentalist religion is giving to public policy discussions, I'm quite sure that Professor Niebuhr would have lavished more than a little of his delicious irony on today's religious politics.

On the other hand, that the entire nation should be focused on the life-and-death drama of a single individual during Easter week does focus our thoughts where they probably ought to be.

I have nothing but compassion for the parties most intimately involved in the Terri Schiavo case. My heart goes out to Terri herself, whose life as we know life--mindful, sentient, and purposeful--appears effectively to have ended 15 years ago; to her parents, who, understandably, continue to hope against hope that she might yet miraculously recover; to her husband, whose years of unanswered prayers finally reconciled him to the futility of prolonging Terri's subsistence; to her doctors, who deliberated long and hard before determining that to keep Terri's body alive any longer would not serve life, but only prolong her living death; and to the judges, before whom the settlement of her case properly lies. One may question their decision to let Mrs. Schiavo die, while remaining grateful that we live in a nation of secular laws and not in a theocracy.


I wish I could add that my compassion--always an elevating sentiment--extends to the politicians who have opportunistically seized upon this family tragedy to trumpet their piety. Jesus warned against public displays of piety. He knew that self-righteous display is the opposite of righteousness before God. Among other things, such displays promote hypocrisy. Today, with respect to our born-again Congress, this hypocrisy is most evident in the ongoing debate over next year's budget. Terri Schiavo's care, and that of others like her, is largely underwritten by Medicaid, even as national funding for health care is being frozen and may soon be slashed.

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Forrest Church
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