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.
One can make a moral case against all forms of euthanasia, but to do so responsibly requires a commitment to underwrite the massive costs such a position must entail. As for all the pious political expostulation against starvation, cutting back on food stamps here at home or slicing foreign aid to abate famine abroad rips out untold numbers of feeding tubes. Children daily die in Africa by the hundreds, by the thousands, without fanfare--children not in a vegetative state, who might otherwise have lived a full and active life. While ignoring or rejecting so many other humanitarian pleas, when our legislators take time off from cutting the human services budget to promote a feeding law designed to address the plight of a single human being, they turn President Bush's "culture of life" mantra into a parody.
The Terri Schiavo controversy has led to at least one positive outcome. Over the past week, several of you I know (and perhaps many of you) have emended your living wills explicitly to include feeding tubes in the category of artificial life supports you ask not be employed to prolong your life beyond its natural term. Carolyn and I have done the same. We would readily choose death over 15 years of vegetative or semi-vegetative life supported by tubes. Death is not a curse to be outwitted no matter the cost. Death is the natural hinge upon which life turns, without which life as we know it could not be. A pro-life support position is not always a pro-life position. When we can no longer hold on with hope or purpose, to let go for dear life is to die with dignity and grace.
It goes without saying that the pro-life rubric provides the religious right with a powerful rhetorical symbol. The word "life" encompasses a far more resonant standard for moral action than does the word "choice." And yet, in the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses tells God's people, "Choose Life," life and choice are yoked together in a single redemptive dynamic. Without choice, life, especially moral life, is diminished to almost nothing. Without choice there can be no moral agency. Moral capacity is based entirely on the ability to choose, even to choose life.
By definition, a life-affirming ethic requires hard choices among competing moral ideals. For instance, the social cost of banning all forms of euthanasia--considered a mortal sin by the religious right--will be offset elsewhere, at the expense of pre-natal care or of preventative medicine. Some proportion of healthy people will get mortally ill in exchange for keeping a smaller number of critically ill people barely alive. To choose life, embracing the fullness of God's call, we must be morally mature enough to admit the necessity of triage. Otherwise, on the altar of our piety we may lavish care on those who can't significantly be helped, while others, whose lives might be saved at far less cost languish in the nation's expanding waiting room.