Friday, March 25, 2005

The Martyrdom of Terri Schiavo

I don’t want to write about the main subject in the news, Terri Schiavo. Nothing that I can write, nothing that I can do will be heard or read in a din of noise that some call a debate, but which is nothing more than the a dissonant chorus of well-meaning individuals looking at the scene from painfully different points of view. But for my own catharsis I am forced to put something into words.

As I woke up I heard a voice on NPR reflecting on how the death of this young woman in Florida somehow gives hope because it has stirred a lot of people to talk about the meaning of life and death. I wonder how many...

I posted a couple of days ago that this event underscores the need for clear planning that might avoid similar tragedies, but last night I came across an impassioned essay that dismissed such comments as “puerile” and of no real significance. In yet another effort to politicize a shared national tragedy, the writer, for whom I have only the greatest respect, goes right to the heart of the matter when he says that as a country we have chosen death. The husband has chosen death. The courts have chosen death. To speak of what ought to have been done is to avoid looking at the real problem. Not wanting to take any of the blame, we all seek to shift the burden of responsibility to someone else.

Just before I read this essay I was listening to an almost irrational talk-show host saying to a caller that if he didn’t like rudeness he should hang up the phone, change the station and listen to something else. The caller, trying to advance another point of view, had said, “If you want to be civil…” and the host interrupted him replying that he wasn’t interested in being civil. He was interested in saying something that could change what was happening to a dying woman in Florida. His passion – a good word to be using this week – seemed real.

The word “shrill” was knocked about before the election to describe those whose minority views were never going to have the dignity of civil debate. Spin masters knew they faced such hard-core opposition that debating would only serve to provide wider circulation of those views, so a better defense was to marginalize them by dismissing their views as “shrill” yelling. The response was to grab the word and wear it proudly, in the manner of demonstrators in Belgrade a few years ago by wearing bulls-eyes for the entire world to see in news photos. A Google search for “shrill” gets over three quarters of a million hits, those with a political bent topping the list.

Many of the people who used the word “shrill” pejoratively can now appreciate, in the case of Terri Schiavo, what it means to have their views, their ideas, their deepest values – another great word nowadays – rendered impotent in a tide of events over which they have no meaningful control.

I already know, after a lifetime of trying, that nothing that I say or do will make a lot of difference in the outcome of national policies. In retrospect I count myself fortunate that in my younger years I was able to participate in a movement resulting in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and an end to American involvement in Vietnam. But those things really didn’t come about because of anything that I did. Had Kennedy not been assassinated, civil rights legislation might have been delayed by the Solid South. And the end of the war came about more as the result of failing and duplicitous policies in Washington than kids in the streets.

But none of that is important. As I look around me, those were only a couple of bright spots in my youth. A darker picture emerges when I think of how helpless I feel watching the advance of what Walter Wink refers to as the myth of redemptive violence. From TV, from the movies, from books, we are spoon-fed the idea that there is a connection between violence and morality. We are led to believe that in some way God requires of man that he be willing to do more than die to defend good against evil; he must also be willing to fight and kill as well.

That is where we cross the line. It is one thing to die for something. It is another matter to kill another person for a cause. We get confused when we lose focus about what is killing and what is dying. We get tangled up in language and use phrases such as “right to die” and “right to live” when both refer to the same event, but we need to spin the argument one way or another. Typically this is an effort to shift the responsibility to someone other that ourselves.

We need to back away from the discussion long enough to see what is happening to us a population. There is no way in a representative government that any of us is allowed to claim that what our government does is not an extension of what each of us is doing as an individual. It’s like being part of a family. We didn’t choose our parents or our siblings, but whoever they are, good, bad or indifferent, that is how things are. We need not approve of a father’s abuse or a sister’s degradation, but we cannot escape the truth that he is the father, and she is the sister. Like it or not, we are all in this together.

The case of Terri Schiavo is presenting a lot of Americans with a dilemma that is old stuff for some of us: how do I reconcile my values as an individual with those of a citizen when those two values are in conflict?

The abortion debate has primed the pump. The polarization of the country around this issue has resulted in a political rift carelessly dismissed by pundits as liberal vs. conservative. But there are a large and growing number of so-called “liberals” who know that abortion, though legal, is also immoral. I imagine there are a lot of “conservatives” who breathe many a sigh of relief that a sister or daughter “in trouble” can legally escape the consequences of an “unwanted” pregnancy, though they would never say so publicly. Yesterday’s issue of Catholic Online has a timely essay entitled Gen-X: Is Terri Schiavo our Roe v. Wade? At last we can point to ourselves and know that our self-righteous attitudes about euthanasia have not kept us untainted as a nation from that stripe of evil.

In the final analysis, we have to conclude that legality and morality will never be congruent. We are not, nor do we want to be, a theocracy. We must come to terms with the shortcomings of man-made laws and systems. Those of us who oppose capital punishment have lived with those shortcomings for a long time, and will continue to do so. My opposition to capital punishment is not based on what it does to the person executed, but on what it does to me as a citizen-participant in the execution. I find it offensive that anyone would try to attach my views regarding capital punishment to any putative approval of what is happening in Florida. I have learned over the years to tolerate such ignorance as nothing more than that: a leap from the known to the unknown, based on what is in this case bad faith.

I had to be at work this year on Palm Sunday, but in past years I have taken part in several Palm Sunday services that enable the congregation to reenact the Passion of Christ. We gathered outside the sanctuary and processed into the church singing, as a symbolic representation of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Later in the service, various people read from a Passion Narrative adapted from the synoptic gospels. Part of that narrative has everyone in the congregation to cry out in response to questions from Pilate, “Crucify Him!” We all participate in the call for crucifixion. We all are part of that multitude. We all share in that shameful execution. And we all stand in need of His forgiveness.

Likewise, we all share in the death of Terri Schiavo. As citizens we are taking part in that passion narrative.

Terri Schiavo will be remembered as a martyr. Even if by some stretch of fate she were allowed to resume living for a few more years she would still die a martyr. Her death will always be remembered as a formative event in the American Public Square as the moment that finally provoked us as a nation to face at least one facet of our national sinfulness. She is a martyr because we all took part, one way or another, in her death. For some of us it is a new and painful idea, the notion that we are committing a sin simply by being part of a population. But in that common place we all stand together in need of Divine forgiveness.

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

from the Book of Common Prayer

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Added Mar 26...
Donald Sensing, former Marine officer and current Methodist minister, courageously takes a stand that I find reasonable. Yesterday's post and the one preceding it are both worth reading. The comment threads start out well enough as regular readers sound supportive, but there are a good many flames as word spreads.
* * * *
And March 28, the day after Easter...
Somebody was bound to say it - the idea that everyone had and no one wanted to put into words. It seems so cold to say it out loud. Jon Carroll writes in the San Francisco Chronicle...
Schiavo's sad case is not unique; feeding tubes are pulled every day in the United States. Patients are intentionally given overdoses of morphine every day in order to relieve their suffering. Sick people choose to die, and say so, and they do die, aided or unaided. This is the cycle of life....The panderers and the publicly pious created a nine-ring circus around a private family decision, and they used a helpless young woman as a pawn. They did so apparently without conscience and without regret....Did any of them care about Terri Schiavo for the first 14.5 years of her vegetative state? They did not. Did they offer to pay for the extraordinary expense of keeping her alive? They did not. Did they sit by her bedside, read her books, play her music, bathe her bedsores? They did not. There's nothing to be gained from unpublicized compassion. ...There are elderly people all over this country dying every day from simple neglect. People just forget about them. Maybe Congress could subpoena them! That way, when they didn't show up, they'd be in contempt of Congress and someone would have to go find them and at least change their sheets and give them some hot broth.
There is more. A lot more.


Kobayashi Maru said...

A beautiful, thoughtful, honest post. Thank you.

Donald Sensing said...

Thank you for the link, and thank you also for a deeply insightful essay.

A small point, please: I am a retired Army officer, not Marine. My son is a Marine.