The right to die and Christian stewardship
I read a Dec. 26 article on Salon.com by Lillian Rubin, entitled, "Let's Talk About Dying." Rubin is a sociologist, psychologist and acclaimed author. According to her article, she is "88-going-on-89 and not in great health," so I looked forward to hearing what she had to say about death — especially in the light of our continuing reflections on Christian Stewardship.
Rubin pointed out that 24.7 percent of the Medicare budget is spent in the final year of life. She raised the issue of the social good that could be served by redirecting those funds to serve human needs elsewhere. It seems to be a logical and rational approach, but, of course, this is a specious argument. Ultimately, what it requires is to balance one human life against that of another — a task that, according to Christian doctrine, is clearly the sole purview of God.
I think human history has demonstrated our patent inability to handle such issues with any degree of justice, righteousness or dignity. We don't do well when we take on "God tasks."
Again CS reminds us that we are stewards of our lives — not owners. We do not have the authority to decide who should live and who should die. Our responsibility is to respect life in its sanctity and dignity — honoring the gift of it as we would honor its giver, our Creator, God.
Rubin admitted what is true for many people — that she wanted to be in control of her life at the end. "Why," she asked, "do I have the right to make choices at every life stage until the last one? Why does an adolescent have the right to decide whether to continue in high school or drop out, to go to college or get a job? Why does an adult have the right to marry or stay single, to have children or remain childless, to retire at 65 or continue to work? Yet, I do not have the right to die."
Of course, CS offers a correction and clarification to Rubin's assertion that she "makes choices at every life stage" — because she did not choose when she was born. That was God's choice, just as the Church teaches that it is God's choice when and how she dies.
While Rubin believes "right to die" means she has the right to procure death either by her own hand or by another's, the Church acknowledges the sanctity of life and our right to die with dignity. ("Declaration on Euthanasia," Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).
Rubin made a number of interesting points in her article, but there was one in particular with which I agree wholeheartedly. She asserted that our culture here in the United States imbues us with a very "destructive fear of death" — that it "compels us to live, even when 'living' may be little more than breathing; [that] we have made living, just to be alive, the unqualified objective." Like Rubin, I have observed attitudes in friends, colleagues, popular culture and the media that do not accept death as a natural part of this life. Instead, we seem to want to fight death tenaciously, even when to do so is irrational and may be a reflection of questionable faith.
As Christian stewards, we should be consciously aware that, like everything in our custody, our lives belong to God. All that we have, including our lives, should be held with open hands to God — ready to offer to him whenever he deems it appropriate. And, because we are baptized into Jesus Christ — his life and death — we should remember that, upon our deaths, we will share in his resurrection and life beyond death.
Because of this, we should not fear our mortal death (Romans 6:3-4). CS compels us to give witness to this doctrine of faith by our words, actions and beliefs. Let us all be good stewards of our lives, even unto death. Amen.
(Walt Sears is a lay ecclesial minister in the Diocese of Oakland.)
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