"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

"What an edifying spectacle."

It isn't, of course; nor did Thersites mean to be anything but sarcastic, by saying it is.

What has happened, of course, is that two subjects have become confused with each other. The two subjects are the law, and ethics. "As soon as there is law, there is partition." (Jacques Derrida) And in this case, a seeming partition between what ethics would require, and the law provide. Derrida also rather infamously asked: "My death; is it possible?," as an existential question, an epistemological problem. Is it possible to actually have knowledge of our own death, to actually think through the one experience we cannot live through. The case of Terri Schiavo raises that very issue viscerally, for those paying attention. And while the law must remain magisterially indifferent to such matters in such cases, ethics requires that we grapple with it, even that we cry out against it. "Do not go gentle into that good night" meets "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

And I alone am escaped alive to tell thee.

At least, it begins to feel that way, standing as I do with a foot in both camps, understanding the legal issues while wrestling with the ethical ones. It is one thing to say the law allows for the refusal of treatment; it is another matter entirely to consider food and water "treatment," even though, in this case, they are. And they are not the beginning or end of the treatment someone in a persistant vegetative state needs, either; but they are the beginning of the end, if they are withdrawn. But the question of allowing death, or even abetting death, is a strong one, and will not rest quietly or easily. As a chaplain on NPR said today: we all personalize this issue. We all compare it to our own experience, to what we have done, imagine we would do. And in that, we are all wrong.

One thing I have learned in ministry, is that every decision is individual, every life is particular and peculiar, and none of us is fit to sit in judgment on any other one of us. None of us is in the situation of another, even if we have been in a similar situation at some time in our lives. Our situation is not theirs; our feelings are not theirs; our understandings, copings, sensitivies and sensibilities, are not theirs. This is inescapable, but we struggle hard to escape it. We try hard to incorporate the other into ourselves, to break down that implacable barrier between self and other and absorb the other. We try, in other words, to establish a hierarchy, a priority, a privileged position, in which we are superior to "them," and their particularities and peculiarities are cancelled out by our need for consonance and resonance and finally harmony and assimilation. We struggle against the reality that we are alone, and that while we live together, we, too, will die alone.

The one thing no one else can do for us.

And so we turn this situation into an edifying spectacle, with all the irony that term conjures up. We create nightmare and horror show and circus, all to drown out the loud and clanging reality that it is not us in that bed, but it could be; that it is mortality we all fear, and that we all bluster about and divert our attention from, and that wounds us with scars that never heal, that never even make scares, but remain open and running and sore. We insist we are not afraid, but we are terrified. We know that there, but for the grace of God, go we. We know we could be next.

We handle death very poorly in this society. It terrifies us. It literally scares us to death. That is the worst fear we can imagine, and the worst thing we can imagine is life-in-death, because it means our death is real, and is coming, and it will be the one experience we will not live through. And it means our death is possible. And the touch of that cold hand is more than we can bear.

So we shout loudly: at the state, or the court, or the protestors, or each other. Scream and yell and bellow and make symbols of ourselves and hold up signs, all to drive the demons away, all to shield ourselves from what we fear most, and handle the worst. We are all terrified, because we still understand the power of symbols, we all see a piece of ourselves, our possible selves, our potential selves, in that breathing not-yet corpse in the pictures, and we know someday, somehow, it will be us.

And we would do anything to keep that from happening.

By Good Friday some of us will say: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Will we think, secretly, of Terri Schiavo? Of her husband, her parents, her family? Perhaps we should; for her sake, and theirs, and ours. It might actually do us good. It might actually bring something useful out of this edifying spectacle we have all created.


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