On Life and Death

Strange how cruel the natural world is. Or is it us who think it cruel by imposing our sentimentality on to it?  I have been watching a pair of Black Redstarts dashing back and forth feeding their young on the nest, and reminded myself that all this effort may be wasted as a Sparrowhawk or a Cat may eat the baby birds once they fly. That’s what the world is like. It is the same thing when we sow seeds as in the Gospel today (Matthew 13:1-23). Any gardener knows that once the seeds spring up you will have to prick out and throw away quite a few of them to allow the others room to grow. I sometimes get quite sentimental at those little helpless seedlings that I have to destroy, but that is the way things are, and being sentimental is not much use!

It is intriguing how many of us will love badgers and fight for them not to be killed, but happily want to see rats got rid of even though the Brown Rat is actually just as attractive as a Badger. We will squash that Wasp if it gets into the house and might sting us, but save that Butterfly, and our reasoning why we do one and not the other is quite illogical.

Part of us longs for a world where there is no pain and no death, yes. But we need to think seriously what a world like that would be like. If animals and people kept being born and there was no death,  the world would have filled up long ago. Death and decay are part of the way life moves on, and endlessly trying to avoid death, for anyone or any animal that we like, is to miss the point of life.

Notice that I say anyone because during this current debate about whether assisted suicide should be legal in the UK, some people forget, or never knew that the Catholic Church teaches that striving too hard keep people alive is not what we should be doing. Indeed The Catechism says “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment.”  

However helping people to commit suicide is not a good idea, not least because we humans are not animals and so have memory and imagination so that what happens to one human being actually affects all of us. It is, of course, terribly terribly difficult when someone we love has an incurable condition and is dying, especially if they are young; but the problem is that once you allow one person to die, you open the flood gates for more and more deaths, as they are discovering in Holland. One of my ex-students pointed out that it is much cheaper to kill people than to look after them until they die. What appears to be compassionate eventually becomes horrific. Think also how many people facing some kind of illness, especially but not exclusively mental illness, often express a wish to die when they have lots to live for once they get better. Are we to start assisting everyone who wants to die? Finally there are the elderly who would begin to feel that their increasing frailty was putting too much pressure on their family. Should we encourage them to commit suicide too?

Note that none of these arguments have anything to do with our faith in God. Many good humanists and atheists who are against Euthanasia or Assisted Suicide would use the same arguments. The point is that this is just what our World is like. There is life and there is death and if we start getting sentimental about it, we are missing the point. If we want people to respect and care for our life, and the life of our loved ones, we must be very careful not to move into a world where anyone who is in the way can be killed. That was the kind of world Hitler argued for where all sorts of people – the disabled, the mentally ill, the homosexuals as well as the Jews – were killed because they offended his view of what human society should be like.

Every human life is a precious gift and must be cared for and protected. For as soon as we allow one to fall others will follow. But equally death must be accepted as a part of life. To want to help people die who are still alive or to keep people alive when they should be allowed to die are both part of a sentimental view of the world that we Christians should avoid at all costs. The disciples wanted to stop Jesus from facing the possibility of his death, but he would not allow this. Looking at Jesus dying on the cross should help us to face death but not to seek it. Our personal feelings must not get in the way here, however hard that may be. What we feel is often not what is actually the right thing to do,



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