Americans have a long habit of morphing every political controversy into a contest of rights. One of the latest examples of this is the “right to die,” or the exercise of a personal decision to end one’s life free of legal barriers or any other impediments. This “right to die” movement has gained prominence with the Terri Schiavo case and the release of the Academy Award-winning movie Million Dollar Baby.
And earlier this year, the US Supreme Court revoked a federal challenge to an Oregon law allowing doctors to prescribe drugs for patients to use to hasten their own passing. While the ban was struck down primarily on federalist concerns, many are viewing the Oregon law as a “test case” for other similar statutes.
In many of these kinds of cases, public opinion is displaying a growing affinity for certain aspects of Libertarian political thought, which generally espouses a radical personal autonomy. The National Platform of the Libertarian Party adopted at the May 2004 Convention in Atlanta speaks of “the right to commit suicide” as an application of “the ultimate right of an individual to his or her own life.”
What’s most disturbing for the Church, though, is the increasingly broad acceptance of these views within Christian circles. Dr. Robert Baird, professor of philosophy and ethics at Baylor University, argued in a lecture for the right for persons to choose physician-assisted suicide, “Do not we as moral agents have the right to paint the final stroke, or write the last sentence?”
Lest one thinks this is merely the opinion of some ivory-tower academic, the Baylor student newspaper followed up Baird’s speech with an editorial in favor of the right to die, calling it a “fundamental freedom.” And a 2003 Pew Forum survey found that 38% of evangelical Protestants favored a move to “give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives,” with much greater support among other religious groups (58% of Catholics surveyed answered favorably to this question).
Both scholars and laypersons need to realize that the advocacy for a “right to die” represents a significant challenge, diametrically opposed to a biblically Christian view of the human person both in life and death. Clearly it’s time for a brief theological primer on these issues.
This idea of the absolute right over one’s life is incompatible with a biblical worldview. The Heidelberg Catechism, a historic document of confessional Reformed Christianity, asks and answers such a question in its most famous section, “What is your only comfort, in life and in death? That I belong body and soul, in life and in death not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
So Christians, at least, do not own themselves in any absolute sense. When writing about sexual immorality, St. Paul asks, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). This biblical concept of our bodies belonging to Christ means that the Christian’s attitude toward his or her life and body is radically different than a libertarian view. The human body, as an integral part of the whole person, is a possession or property, but in a limited rather than an absolute sense.
An idea of property rights in this limited sense implies that we are stewards of our possessions and that we are answerable to God for how we use these gifts. This is what is portrayed the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and the contention that God “will give to each person according to what he has done” (Romans 2:6). The very fact that St. Paul talks about judgment of both Christians and non-Christians implies that non-believers too are accountable to God for their stewardship. While Christians are specially linked to Christ and are His, all of creation (including unbelievers) ultimately belongs to God and is accountable to him.
St. Paul writes elsewhere in the book of Romans that “none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:7-8). Whatever rights we may purport to have about choosing the time and manner of our death with dignity, they pale in comparison to the responsibilities and duties we have to God and our neighbors.
The intimate link between the two great love commandments to love God and our neighbor means that in living “to the Lord,” we also live to, for, and with others. The social nature of the human person means that a view of absolute individual freedom, such that gives rise to the “the ultimate right of an individual to his or her own life,” is simply inadequate. It cannot account for the legitimate social and moral claims put upon us by our friends, family, and neighbors, or for the duties put upon us by God.
If we are not “to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13), then we are not to approach death in conformity to the wisdom of the world. Surely it was such worldly wisdom spoken to Job, afflicted “with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head,” when his wife said, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:7,9). Job, of course, had many more reasons than simply his bodily suffering to give up hope and die; he had lost his entire family and all of his worldly possessions. Instead, Job displayed a spiritual wisdom that contradicts the hopelessness of the world: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
Whether we are blessed, following our struggles and suffering, in this life (as Job was) or the next, we must recognize that our time on this earth, no matter how marred by sin and evil, is God’s gracious gift. And the Christian hope of heaven infuses this time with eternal significance. Let us all hope and pray that when we are faced with our death, which “puts an end to our sinning and is our entrance into eternal life,” we might, like Job, hold on to our integrity.
Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality, published by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
(This update courtesy of the Breakpoint with Chuck Colson.)