Today’s student essay invites us to reflect on the sensitive topic of assisted dying. It was written by Andrew Cardy, a recent graduate of the University of Auckland, as part of his course work for our popular General Education course, The Bible in Popular Culture (THEOREL 101G). Andrew has just completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Honours, and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and History. He is currently researching Pedagogical Games at the University of Auckland, and looks to complete his Masters qualification in the near future. As well as being a very hardworking student, Andrew is also a youth worker, a vestry member, and a synod representative of St. Andrew’s Epsom, here in Auckland.
Andrew’s essay considers the political debates around assisted dying, particularly the use of the Bible as a ‘cultural prop’ within these debates. I hope you enjoy.
The Bible and Assisted Dying Bills
by Andrew Cardy
The Bible has been a popular point of reference in political discourse since its inception over 2,000 years ago. Within popular culture’s dialogue today the Bible serves as an authoritative, and at times instructive, tool that is widely appropriated by both the secular and religious alike. The current political rhetoric regarding euthanasia (henceforth referred to as ‘assisted death’) is indicative of this. Utilising this case study as a springboard, this essay will discuss the Bible’s use as a ‘cultural prop’ in contemporary politics today. After unpacking this term, focus will turn to the two key points of contention in the assisted dying debate, concluding with a brief summary of New Zealand’s current political rhetoric on the issue. The interest of this investigation is not in valuing one side of the debate over the other, but rather in assessing their various uses of the Bible in the creation of their claims.
Nations with a strong bond between Church and State often offer political discourse riddled with both implicit and explicit references to the Bible. The perception of the politician responsible is the primary concern, rather than the literal meaning of the text. The Bible is cited in order to prop up the individual’s public persona (Crossley 2014, 42). In this way the Bible is used as a ‘Cultural Prop’, defined by Yale Professor Joel Baden as a means of affirming certain personal religious values within a political context (2014). The Bible’s iconic form as a means of moral and ethical instruction informs such a use, as prospective voters or viewers are more likely to be persuaded by its insertion into political rhetoric. The recent political debates around assisted death have led to examples of this type of use as evidenced in the USA and UK especially, where explicit reference to the Bible was present in a majority of submissions made on legislature (Rae 2016, 264). However, engagement with the text is often irresponsible, as Reverend Jonathan Clatworthy noted on the Carter v. Canada case, “consistency lay in political affiliation rather than theological argument: theologians could adapt biblical text… to reach the desired conclusions” (2015, 137).
Certainly the most pronounced, and perhaps the most fundamental, point of contention is around the ‘sanctity of life’ idea, the belief that all life is sacred. For those opposing the introduction of assisted death the most unshakeable assertion of all comes from commandment, “Thou shall not murder” (Exod. 20.13). The political precedent for this was most strongly advocated by Pope John Paul II in 1980 when he said, “no one can make an attempt on the life of a person without opposing God’s love, [constituting a] violation of the divine law [and] an attack on humanity.” A cultural and religious figure of extraordinary influence, the Pope’s message has the power to shift public opinion, as was the case in 1980. Since this momentous statement, the impetus has shifted onto the right to take away life as being reserved only for God, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1.21). Excerpts like that of Job 1:21 are present in the submission made by the Catholic Bishops of Alberta who wrote, “killing is not a medicine” (Smith et al 2016). These interpretations by the Pope and Bishops are derived from what Hauer and Young coined as the ‘historical world’, the world behind the text, which accounts for circumstances that existed at the time of the Bible’s inception.
Those who are in favour of the newly proposed legisature legalising assisted death have disputed this use of the Bible as being out of touch, as Professor Ron Hamel wrote, “euthanasia is not new… what seems new is the cultural context in which the question arises” (Hamel 1991, 15). Those such as Reverend Clatworthy contend that these passages were meant for an audience familiar with gladiators and high mortality rates, rather than the context of overpopulation that persists today (2015, 136). The assertion of this view is that modern science and medicine has allowed human life to be extended beyond the expectancy of the Bible’s “seventy years, or perhaps eighty” (Ps. 90.10). Lord George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, notably spoke in favour of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill in the UK. Carey reasons that “statements that… life is ‘sacred’ and ‘thou shalt not kill’… are too broad to be relevant,” instead he describes these principles as “the backcloth to the debate” (Carey 2015, 114). Lord Carey and his colleagues are herein applying the rhetoric of the Bible through the lens of the “contemporary world,” the world in front of the text itself. Interpretations of this kind place greater emphasis on the context of culture today, as the ability to extend life differentiates from God “forming man from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2.7). In their use of scripture, those such as Lord Carey employ a dynamic equivalence translation, rather than the formal equivalence used by Pope John Paul II. In this way they use the thoughts of the passages rather than the actual words themselves in creating their argument to better suit a contemporary world context.
Alongside the debate around ‘sacredness of life’, another main point of contention is the question around the biblical themes of compassion and protection for the vulnerable. Those who have opposed the recent assisted dying bills rely on inferences from the Bible, such as that of the commandment, “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk 12.31). Compassion in this instance is interpreted as referring to the continuing caring for one another as a primary concern. The recently proposed ‘End of Life Choice Bill’ in New Zealand prompted such a response from the Catholic Bishop caucus: “Legalising euthanasia would place the lives of the vulnerable at risk… the mark of a good society is its ability and willingness to care for those who are most vulnerable” (2013). Compassion here is given from a care perspective, like that of the Hippocratic Oath, which advocates the continued assistance to people even if they are in dire circumstances. This use of the Bible is termed by Robert Myles as the “Cultural Bible” which “refers to the use of the Bible beyond its typical confines of institutional religion” (2016, 138; c.f. Crossley 2014). The assertions made seek to underpin debate in a shared identity and shared responsibility, creating what Professor Paul Badham referred to as a “caring community” (Badham 2015, 198).
Lord Falconer and Lord Carey disputed these claims in the recent debates in the UK, instead asserting that it is more compassionate to give someone decency in death. The foundation for this line of debate does not often come directly from scripture, but rather from developments in science and technology. The research used states that not all pain can be stopped, in which cases sedation into a vegetative state is inevitable. Dr. Atul Gawande wrote, “we cannot be endlessly trying to simply preserve life. If is to have a purpose,” as many see sedation to be an unfit methodology (Webb 2014). The leading politicians for these assisted death proposals believe that assisted death is in fact a more compassionate and caring path. Leader of the ACT Party David Seymour said in his initial address to parliament, “there needs to be a more compassionate option in New Zealand”, as similarly Lord Falconer opened his legislate with, “For a person facing this prospect… the choice is cruel.” Here the sense of a “cultural bible” acquires fresh meaning, as the inferences of biblical scripture are appropriated in paraphrased translations. This appropriation of the Bible has some resonance with what Myles referred to as the “Radical Bible” in its advocacy of change and support in relief of the suffering (2016, 132; c.f. Crossley 2014). Though there is very little in terms of direct reference to the text, the Bible’s interpreted themes of care and justice offer the foundation for this scientifically supported understanding.
The contemporary context in New Zealand is ripe with instances of these implicit references to the Bible. As Myles wrote, “political discourse in New Zealand is, for the most part, decidedly secular” for politicians avoid explicit reference in fear of “alienating a large proportion of the population” (2016, 138). Instead the rhetoric of politicians such as David Seymour focuses on directing debate away from discussion of scripture, and instead into ideals like that of choice. In Seymour’s line of argument the Catholic backgrounds of politicians like Bill English and Simon O’Connor act as roadblocks for the vehicle of change (Moir 2016). In this discourse around the right to choice, Seymour is implicitly referencing the “Liberal Bible,” in his affirmation of individualism and democracy (Myles 2016, 140). Liberal lines of argument spring up in all his public rhetoric, as he positions himself as a “representative in a democracy to support the will of my people” (Grant 2015). This use of the Bible had success in Canada, where by focusing on the polling numbers of the voters instead of “attempting to balance competing values” the bill would irrevocably be put through (Rae 2015, 260). The moral concept of a shared community are put aside in using the Liberal Bible, as individualism is instead at the forefront, giving people the full autonomy of choice in pursuing their own individual beliefs. New Zealand offers a complementary demographic, consisting of myriad cultures held together by capitalist ideals of individuality, presenting Seymour a plausible ground from which to propose his legislation.
On Friday 14th October, David Seymour debated his proposed legislation at St. Luke’s Church, a progressive Presbyterian Church in Remuera, Auckland. In the discussions that follow this over the months to come, one should expect to see various uses of the Bible, both implicit and explicit, in addressing the sanctity of life and compassion for the vulnerable. As witnessed from other contemporary debates overseas, each of these arguments will likely be founded in scripture in one way or another. While the focus and emphasis of the two sides differ, in using the world inside or outside the text, or adhering to traditions of the Cultural, Radical or Liberal Bible, the political incentive will remain consistent – that is to use the Bible like a “cultural prop” in order to “buttress politicians’ existing agendas,” which, as Yvonne Sherword remarks, “has little to do with the text” (2012, 2; c.f. Myles 2016, 140). This use of the Bible will persist in contemporary politics as long as a voting demographic upholds it as a source for moral and ethical guidance. So for the foreseeable future, and the assisted dying debates to come, pay close attention to the rhetoric used, and realise your own religious and cultural background as well as that of the speakers in divining your own belief.
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Carey, George. “Re-assessing assisted dying: a personal statement.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 105 – 132.
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Crossley, James. Harnessing chaos: The Bible in English political discourse since 1968. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.
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Webb, Justin. “Reith lecturer and rock-star doctor Atul Gawande on life, death and how to cure the NHS.” radiotimes.com, 25 November 2014. http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2014-11-25/reith-lecturer-and-rock-star-doctor-atul-gawande-on-life-death-and-how-to-cure-the-nhs.