A bill that would authorise “euthanasia” and assisted suicide for terminally ill people is before the New Zealand Parliament, with a final vote expected this month. If the bill passes, there will be a binding referendum held at next year’s general election to determine whether or not the bill would come into law. If the champions of this proposed change succeed, New Zealand would, apparently, be only the fifth country to legalise voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide – after the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Caanda (plus the Australian state of Victoria and some US states). It is a sad commentary that some of the most economically advanced places in the world have been at the forefront of this degeneracy and decay.
I’ve been opposed to the proposal in each of the various forms that have appeared over the years, and cannot imagine ever supporting any sort of legislative regime facilitating assisted suicide. But I haven’t paid that much attention to the issue, having assumed all along that the law would pass into law. The polls have suggested as much, consistent with New Zealand now being one the most liberal and irreligious countries on earth. As someone with little trust in Parliament, I’m pleased that the final decision will be made not by MPs (who get to determine the shape of the legislation) or the courts.
Earlier this week an open letter addressed to members of Parliament was issued by a group of New Zealand church leaders and the head of the New Zealand Muslims (text included here) expressing “grave concern” about the bill.
It is a curious letter on several counts. First, it is representative of the older establishment of New Zealand Christianity (plus the Muslim chap): Anglican and Catholic bishops galore, and national leaders of Baptists, Presbyterians, the Salvation Army and the Lutherans. But there isn’t one representative of the growing part of New Zealand Christianity, the more-or-less non-denominational evangelical and charismatic churches. They wouldn’t have counted for much 50 years ago, but these days they cover a fairly large proportion of those in the pews on any given Sunday. I wonder why the omission? Did they all say no? Do they all disagree? Or did the “old guard” not think to ask? It looks odd – even when the churches put together a typically anodyne piece in the Herald for Christmas the net is usually cast a lot wider.
But my bigger concerns are about what is in (or not in) the letter.
In particular, they seem afraid to be prophetic or to proclaim the gospel. They introduce the letter with talk of how
We speak out of our extensive experience of actively caring for the dying and their whānau.
Perhaps many of them have at one time or another been parish priests (or equivalent), visiting the sick and dying. Hardly any of them are now. But they are all appointed/anointed/ selected/called to be leaders of God’s church in New Zealand at this hour – and not just the ecclesiastical equivalent of corporate or public service bureaucrats (and not academics or think-tankers either). That is – or should be – their distinctive. They are in a position to proclaim a distinctly Christian perspective on life, death, suffering and so on.
But they choose not to. Here is what they said.
While there are various religious arguments that could be employed when debating this issue, both for and against, we accept that these are not engaging for those who are not of a religious persuasion. Thus, the following concerns are of an ethical, philosophical and practical nature:
Whereupon they proceed to set out in seven bullet points their areas of concern. But what was striking about them was that at least six of the points could have been made by anyone. Several are simply empirical claims, where the bishops (most of them are, so I’ll use the shorthand) might be right or might not, but simply expressing the concern – as non-experts in the field or relevant literature – isn’t likely to persuade anyone. The rest are mostly variants of “slippery slope” arguments. I’m not averse to such arguments – there can be all sort of such risks with all sorts of such reforms, and sorting out in advance which are persuasive is hard (the future being hard to forecast). The final issue – around freedom of conscience – might be one where bishops would speak with more authority, churches traditionally having been major providers of health and aged care, but the bishops never actually go into bat for a traditional Christian perspective on life or death. The whole letter was only two pages long.
And so I’m left wondering why anyone would pay any particular attention to this list of views/concern expressed by a bunch of middle-aged non-experts? Any 15 or 20 people – Christian or not – could have put together such a letter.
Consistent with that, I found virtually no media coverage of the letter: one story on Stuff, and another on Stuff about the dismissive reaction of David Seymour – the (irreligious) MP promoting the bill – to the letter.
There was not a hint of “thus saith the Lord” about the letter – not necessarily in the sense of trying to direct events, but proclaiming a perspective on life, death, suffering and so on revealed in the Scriptures and taught by the church these 2000 years or so, building on the revelation to the Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendants in the previous couple of thousand years. There was simply no sense that either “euthanasia” or assisted suicide are simply wrong, that life is a gift of God, nothing of the distinctively Christian ethos of care for others through suffering, nothing of Christian conceptions of making a “good death”. Nothing.
In fact, in many respects the letter seemed captive to the spirit of the age. Perhaps that was in some small part about attempting to relate to people (MPs) who don’t share their faith, but I doubt that is anything like all of it. Because what is striking – and yet goes unremarked in the (very limited) media coverage – is how wishy-washy and unprincipled it all is. The bishops would have not a leg left to stand on if their specific empirical points were allayed, if more money was thrown at the health and palliative care systems, and if a freedom of conscience clause had been included in the bill. But make all those changes and while, at the margin, things might be less awful, it would not change the principled point that suicide is no part of the divine purpose for human beings.
The final substantive paragraph of the letter reads as follows (noting that, as so many of our “elites” now do, they seem to have trouble naming the country correctly)
This is not the right time to be contemplating the introduction of euthanasia and assisted suicide in Aotearoa New Zealand. Only when effective palliative care is a real choice for all New Zealanders will we as a country be in a position to have a proper discussion about offering assisted dying as an additional end-of-life option. In the meantime, the urgent need is for more resources to be directed towards enhancing the equitable provision of quality palliative care throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, as well as addressing the rising rates of depression and social isolation of our elders.
It doesn’t read like the words of a group of people who have any sort of principled objection to David Seymour’s bill. Perhaps many/most of them do, but phrasing things like this lays them open to twin charges of opportunism (just trying to buy time) and of having buried the principles, tradition, and revelation that they are there to proclaim. What sort of clarion call, what sort of leadership, for anyone? Are these the deepest and most profound arguments they will offer in the referendum debate likely to follow next year? Will people in the pews read a letter like this and be freshly inspired to offer a distinctively Christian perspectivein their interactions on the issue leading up to the referendum vote?
I know there are old arguments about what approach the church can take in engaging in the public square. And it easy to note that probably less than 10 per cent of the public is in church on a Sunday. And yet still almost half the country – and perhaps of MPs – fills in census forms suggesting some affiliation (vestigial as it may be in many cases) with the Christian church. Surely, church leaders who really know the truth they teach could hope to appeal to some of that large group: this then is what it means to be a follower of Christ in thinking about such topics.
As I noted earlier, there is no particular reason for the genuinely atheistical MPs (or the public) to may any heed to bishops. It might, of course, be different had the church leaders commissioned serious experts from within the congregations to survey the literature, evaluate the conflicting literatures and experiences etc etc, and had then used such a report to feed into their own theologically informed statement. But there is no sign of that having happened. And so instead we get an open letter that really does neither thing well: there is no Scripture, no theological perspective, no philosophical or ethical perspectives either really, and yet there is no particular depth or insight (reason to pay fresh heed) in the practical concerns they raise.
I guess that, as a person in the pews, it was slightly better than nothing to see church leaders (even just of the old guard) speak on this issue. And yet so weak was their call, with the suspicion that many of them aren’t really opposed in principle at all, that I was left wondering how different a letter from 15 secular NGO heads might have been. And in an increasingly non-Christian, even anti-Christian, society, church leaders should be able to offer something much more deep and powerful, that would encourage congregants and challenge MPs, even if it spoke to many of the latter from a frame of reference no longer their own.
(Meanwhile, one idly hopes for compelling authoritative joint letters on other salient issues, notably abortion and the way in which our governments constantly makes nice with the regime in Beijing, even as the latter viciously persecutes Christians and other religious believers. Sometimes the utter silence on the latter issue has me thinking of the religious leaders scurrying past the man attacked on the road of Jericho, in the story we now know as the Good Samaritan.)