Saturday, April 02, 2005

The Individual v. the Universal

The difference between law and ministry, is that law requires you to focus on the general in the specific; while ministry forces you to focus on the specific in the general. Not exactly deduction v. induction, but a question of which comes first: the person, or the principle?

Romanticism teaches us that the individual must triumph over the principle; but of course that way lies anarchy, and romanticism is not about anarchy. So the victory is often a pyhrric one; the individual triumphs by being conquered by principle (the universal), yet going down unbowed, unbroken, ultimately: undefeated, even in defeat. The problem with that scenario is, we tend to see every instance in every life as an instance of the conflict between two universal principles: the absolute autonomy of the individual, v. the absolute authority of the universal. Unstoppable force meet immovable object: which one prevails?

The Roman Catholic church has said, as a general principle, that while extraordinary measures are not ethically required in order to sustain life against the natural processes of death, food and water are not "extraordinary measures." The general principle is sound. Torture, after all, is an "extraordinary measure" in the arena of imprisonment and detention of persons by governments. When torture is more narrowly defined, it is an attempt to make the extraordinary, ordinary, by simply moving the goal posts. Food and water, like humane treatment and bans on torture, should not be subject to hair splitting over what crosses treatment crosses the threshold from inflicting pain to inflicting inordinate pain; or, what crosses the threshold from life-sustaining to mere life-support. But then the general principle runs up against the specific case. Or, as my torts professor used to say: change the facts, change the outcome.

As a lawyer, I learned not to judge another lawyer's case: how he or she handled it, the outcome, even (rarely), the questions of possible malpractice. Too many facts, too many variables, too many particulars. I knew from my own work that the bewildering forest of facts and thickets of law were an ever shifting maze, and I could not judge the maze another struggled with, unless I saw it just as she did. Indeed, I learned to use that maze to my advantage against my opponents, counting on them not to see what I saw, until I had achieved some victory. Never big ones, for me; but that is how the "game" is "played." But always, I had to hold up the system of law above even my client's interests. I had to objectively weigh their situation, the particularities of fact involved, against the system of the law; and always, the system prevailed. Ultimately, my clients had to yield to what the law allowed; they never got everything they wanted, if only because the law couldn't provide it, or in many cases, wouldn't provide it.

Ministry was the same; but different. In ministry the theological thicket offered security, reason, order imposed on a chaotic world. Except in ministry, the individual reigned supreme. They came to you seeking the order and rationality of the theological structure, but when they turned to you in the emergency room, having just been asked to make the decision of life or death for their loved one, and said: "What do I do, pastor?," the theological answer was not the one they wanted. They wanted the individual answer. And they didn't have time for the legal research, and the analysis, and the brief to come back from the library, comparing their case to thousands of others and looking for the best possible outcome considering the facts on the opposing side and the likely temperament of the judge. They wanted to know now: what do I do?

All ministry is about individuals.

Which brings us back to the Catholic church. It is easier, from a distance, to tell a priest or a pastor what he should do. The farther you are from the particular situation, the easier it is to say what theological or ecclesiological or doctrinal principle should prevail. Standing far removed from the maze, it is easy to point out the preferred path; which is the problem. Even from a distance, you know no more than the individuals involved; you see no clearly than they do, although distance and distortion make you think you are wiser than they.

It is a human condition, not a Roman Catholic one. In ministry, everyone thinks they know better than the pastor or the priest how the job should be done, whether they are as far away as the national office, and pontificating on the importance of social justice while ignoring the realities and peculiarities of the situation in any one congregation; or whether it is a church member, always ready to tell the pastor how to conduct her calling, all the while never anxious himself to take on any responsibility in the church. Reinhold Niebuhr told a story from his days as a minister in Detroit that illustrates the point. During a time of labor strife and layoffs at the automobile factories, Niebuhr delivered a blistering sermon in support of the unions and castigating management for its heartlessness. After the service, as he greeted his congregation, one man stopped to tell Niebuhr that he was in management for an automobile plant, and his life had been a living hell that week as he announced the layoffs to individuals, men he knew were supporting their families with that job. Every pastor can tell a similar story. When the universal runs up against the individual, which should prevail?

Per the teachings of the Catholic church, as conveyed from the Vatican through the news reports available, removing the feeding tube from Terri Schiavo was an improper act. Improper because it involved only the delivery of food and water, which are not, by doctrine, "extraordinary measures." Except, in this case, perhaps they were. Change the facts, change the outcome. In this particular case, Terri Schiavo had no swallow reflex; could not control her bowel movements; may have been aware of no more than "noxious stimuli." Required constant and extensive nursing care simply to sustain body functions. She was in need of more care than any human being ever needs, even inside the womb. She was absolutely unable to provide any care for herself, and every bit of it had to be provided for her, the most life-sustaining parts artificially. From a distance, it is easier to say that food and water are necessities, not extraordinary measures. In the particular, even that fundamental principle has to give way to the conditions that prevail for one individual. It was no accident a Roman Catholic priest gave Terri Schiavo last rites when the feeding tube was removed, and again when she was dying; or that a Mass will be said in her name. From a distance, it is easy to uphold the principle; but the individual must always be considered. We must be guided by our principles, not ruled by them. It is only in the stereotype of the Catholic church, or indeed of any church, that principles always trump people.

The same should be true in the "public eye." The Schindlers, the parents of Terri Schiavo and her brothers and sisters, are individuals faced with the universal: the universal of death, and of love for their family. They have thrust themselves into the public eye with their actions; but who are we to judge them? Who are we to know what they feel, what they have been through, what they think is right? To the extent their grief warps our political system, we have grounds to complain; but to complain about the response of the political system only, not about their grief. How they have behaved in public may be shameful; and it may not. It is not the way I would have behaved, but the matter is not my business. To the extent they try to make it my concern, try, as they now say they will, to change state law, it is my business, and I can take a position on it. But to the extent I judge their behavior and find it wanting, judge their motivations for their fight for their daughter, and find them different from my one, I should remain silent. The political system is open to them if I let it be; but the court system should always be open to them, as it should be to me. To the extent their family problem is a public matter, it is one only when it is political. For the rest, it is too easy for me to judge, from a distance; to weigh them and find them wanting. Life is, for Christians, about ministry; and ministry is about the individual. I am in no position to judge them. Grief is a wrenching thing; and while it is no excuse for wrenching society out of balance, it is not answered with confrontation. It should only be met with comfort, and consolation; or, at a minimum, understanding. The individual must be given room, and benefit, against the universal.

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