Student essay – The Bible and the politics of assisted dying

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.

Getty Images


Baden, Joel. “What use is the Bible?” The Nantucket Project. Nantucket, Massachusetts. March 28, 2014.

Badham, Paul. “Assisted dying: an international overview.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 197 – 208.

Carey, George. “Re-assessing assisted dying: a personal statement.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 105 – 132.
Clatworthy, Jonathan. “The dilemmas we face today: assisted dying, life, death, technology and law.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 134 – 144.

Crossley, James. Harnessing chaos: The Bible in English political discourse since 1968. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Grant, Nick. “Seymour begins his fight for End of Life Choice Bill.” Radio Broadcast. Produced by My NBR Radio. New Zealand, October 14, 2015.

Hamel, Ronald. Choosing Death: active euthanasia, religion, and the public debate. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991.

inthehouseNZ. “04.05.2016 – General Debate – Part 4.” Video Recording. Produced by Tandern Studios. Wellington, New Zealand: May 4, 2016.

Moir, Jo. “Euthanasia debate: what’s different about David Seymour’s bill?” Stuff. 28 January, 2016.

Myles, Robert. “Winston Peters ‘put his hand to the plow’: The Bible in New Zealand political discourse.” Journal of the Bible and its reception 3, no. 1, 2016, pp. 135-153.

“NZ Catholic Bishops message.” The Nathaniel Centre. 27 September, 2013.

Rae, Nicola. “New Zealanders’ Attitudes toward Physician-Assisted Dying.” Journal of Palliative Medicine 18, no. 2, 2015. Pp. 259 – 265

Richard Smith, et al. “Statement of the Catholic Bishops of Albertia on Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.” February 11, 2016.

“Sacred congregation for the doctrine of the faith: Declaration on euthanasia.” The Vatican. May 5th, 1980.

Seymour, David. “Why I’ve prepared this Bill.” Life Choice.

Sherwood, Yvonne. Biblical Blasphemy: Trial of the sacred for a secular age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2012.

Supreme Court of Canada. “Carter vs. Canada” Attorney General. SCC 5, 2015.

Webb, Justin. “Reith lecturer and rock-star doctor Atul Gawande on life, death and how to cure the NHS.”, 25 November 2014.

Let Us Rage


This powerful response to recent events has been written by Auckland TheoRel student Harriet Winn. It was originally published on her own blog, Floating Thoughts. Please read, and rage.

“Do not go gently into that good night, friends. Rage, rage.”

For many of us, women especially, it feels like we are entering a void where nothing but despair dwells.

The election result seems to have shattered any notion of universally held values which privilege goodness and kindness. It feels hopeless. It feels bleak.

I don’t need to reiterate what this result represents – we already know, some of us far too well. It represents a manifestation of fierce hatred. Hatred for women, Muslims, gay people, trans people, Latino people, black people, people with disabilities… the list goes on. In my heart I never truly believed that a campaign built on such ferociously violent rhetoric would succeed. I genuinely (naively) thought that human empathy would overcome hostility, and light would overcome darkness.

I’ve spent today in a slump. Completely and utterly consumed by this overwhelming sense of darkness. Terrified of the immense suffering that is being felt by people of minorities in particular. Terrified that bigots everywhere have been validated in their malice. Terrified of the social regression this symbolises.

I keep seeing quotes pop up which read, ‘Don’t mourn – organise.’Bullshit. Let me mourn. Let us mourn. Our grief is valid and our tears fall for a reason. The pain is still raw. Mourning is part of the process; it is healthy and it is natural. Nothing productive will come from burying our hurt.

But as we mourn, I urge us to rage too. Rage for the lives of our Muslim, gay, trans, black, Latino, disabled sisters and brothers. And turn that rage into action. Let us not descend back into the comfort of normalcy. This is not normal. In the election of Trump, hatred has prevailed and my deepest fear is that that very hatred becomes normalised. Normalcy leads to complacency and right now, complacency is the most dangerous prospect there is.

Let us look for ways to tangibly challenge this vitriol of hatred that Trump so doggedly spouts.

Joining your local Thursdays In Black group is a good place to start. Grassroots movements that hold those in positions of power accountable are urgently needed, now more than ever. By its very existence Thursdays In Black challenges the poisonous endorsement of rape culture by the president-elect. I urge you to start wearing black on Thursdays – join a worldwide movement in taking a visceral and symbolic stand against sexual violence. Let’s make it loud and clear to Trump and his supporters that we refuse to allow the dehumanisation of women and we refuse to let vic­tims of sexual assault be silenced.

So let’s not delegitimise each other’s grief at this awful, awful situation. Let’s be kind to ourselves – and to others.

And let us rage.

If you would like to learn more about Thursdays In Black, follow this link

Aspiring David to take on popularity-giant John Key

In the wake of NZ’s general election, the defeated Labour party are reorganizing and in the process of electing a new leader. To the excitement of biblical enthusiasts, the contest for leader is between a number of “David’s” (there were originally three David’s, but now there are two: David Cunliffe & David Shearer). Just prior to the election we paused to consider the political merits and demerits of one of Israel’s most memorable leader, King Solomon. It seems rather appropriate then, to turn our attention briefly to his father, David, especially given this distinctly ‘Davidic’-themed competition.

The young biblical David’s path to kingship was certainly memorable, starting with his infamous encounter with Goliath and reaching its most dizzying heights with the divine promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty that would rule over all Israel. To be sure, before he became king, David was a bit of a hot-headed youth, prone to childish, dangerous japes (e.g. I Samuel 24) and quick to take offence (e.g. I Samuel 25.1-13). He was, however, also rather brave and quick-witted, showing himself as being as adept at getting out of a tight corner when the need arose (e.g. I Samuel 21) as he was at succeeding on the battlefield (e.g. I Samuel 18.20-30). Moreover, once he was crowned king, David appeared to be an adept ruler over his new kingdom, basking as he was in the ever-present glow of divine favour.

It didn’t take that long, however, before things started to go seriously downhill for the house of David. Like his son Solomon, David’s failures as king are attributed more to his personal character weaknesses than to any explicitly acknowledged political limitations on his part. Just as Solomon is said to be led into apostasy by his predilection for foreign wives, so too does David’s royal kudos ultimately start to disintegrate when he indulges his penchant for the ‘wrong’ woman (II Samuel 11-12).

Moreover, it is interesting to note that David’s impressive ability to think on his feet and get himself out of hot water during the years prior to his ascension to the throne seems to have abandoned him once the royal crown was placed on his head. A quick look at his ‘rap sheet’ and we can see at a glance that things seemed to go from bad to worse as David staggered from one disastrously bad decision to another: adultery, conspiracy to murder, failure to keep his own house in order, and finally, that catastrophic census. While his kingship did survive these crises, both his family and his kingdom were subsequently pummelled, punished, and rent apart by the fruits of his wrongdoings. As Joseph Heller has David say in his ‘biographical’ novel based on the king’s life, God Knows, ‘Who would have thought I had dissatisfied so many?’

So, what, if any, advice can this David give to his two hopeful namesakes, vying for their own leadership role? Is he a good model for them to emulate? Well, I’d say not – adultery, murder, and family scandal didn’t go down too well in biblical Israel and they certainly don’t seem to enhance the political careers of those in government today. Perhaps if David Cunliffe and David Shearer are to look to this biblical figure for any inspiration, they would be better learning some lessons from the young David, before the royal crown dulled his judgment: don’t be afraid to stand up to the big guy (I Samuel 17), always appreciate the value of backing down and admitting you were wrong (I Samuel 25.23-44), and always, always remember the loyalty of your friends (I Samuel 18-20, II Samuel 1.17-27).

Solomon as political leader?

With the media in New Zealand currently preoccupied with the imminent General Election, it is perhaps apposite to leave aside for the moment all thoughts of teapots, taping devices, and tactical voting and turn our attention to some biblical politics – First Testament style. One particular biblical figure that has always come under his share of political scrutiny is King Solomon, who took over the throne of the united kingdom of Israel after his father David’s death. Over the years, biblical scholars have attributed Solomon with an array of soubriquets that range from ideal ‘gold-plated’ king to selfish dictator; there seems to be as many opinions about his political acumen and leadership style as there were subjects in his kingdom: ‘as many as the sand by the sea’ (1 Kings 4.20). These widely conflicting views all stem from the Solomonic traditions in 1 Kings 3-11 themselves, which chart both the dizzying heights and humiliating lows of this character’s monarchical career. So, it is to these traditions to which our attention will now turn, as we consider a few of Solomon’s political strengths and weaknesses.

Domestic Policies

According to 1 Kings 4, Solomon’s new and expanded temple-state bureaucracy, which he set up in his new capital Jerusalem, was highly successful; Israel and Judah ‘ate and drank and were happy’, each person living in safety under his [and her?] own vine and fig tree. However, this centralized Jerusalem-based administration did appear to come at a cost – to some of Solomon’s subjects at least. The king imposed a new structure of territorial organization on the kingdom, dividing ‘all Israel’ into 12 fiscal districts for tax collection purposes (1 Kings 4.17-19a), with each district providing food for ‘the king and his household’ one month per year. This structure of organization replaced the more traditional division and naming of the land according to tribal boundaries, thereby seriously undermining time-honoured tribal authority, identity, and power networks, which David had tolerated when he was king. While around half of the twelve districts did retain the original tribal boundaries and place names, tribal autonomy was still essentially lost, as all 12 districts were now under direct supervision by crown-appointed prefects. One wonders just how popular this loss of customary and age-old tribal authority and individuality was, given the obvious importance of tribal affiliation for group and community identity in Israel at the time.

Moreover, Solomon’s taxation of ‘all Israel’ starts to look decidedly dodgy when we note that he appeared to be taxing only the northern territory of the kingdom, whilst giving the southern area of Judah a generous tax ‘break’ (1 Kings 4.19b). Given the huge extent of provisions each territory was supposed to supply for the royal larder, one can imagine that the exemption of Solomon’s own southern homeland from this burden would have caused a considerable amount of resentful mutterings among his northern subjects. [A rather similar scenario took place in Scotland in the 1980s.]

A further cause of north-south unrest likewise comes to the fore when we consider Solomon’s ethically dubious decision to keep unemployment figures down by using conscripted labour. In 1 Kings 9.15-25, we are told that he utilized slave labour from among the indigenous Canaanite people still living in the land to complete his many massive building projects. While the writers of this narrative may have expected readers to laud Solomon’s policy of exempting Israelites from such slave labour (1 Kings 9.20-22 – cold comfort for the indigenous slaves, surely), it is less clear what they intended their audience to make of the king’s decision to conscript ad hoc temporary forced labour from among the Israelites in order to complete the building of the new temple-palace complex in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5.13-17). Even more dubiously, this conscripted labour was pulled only from the northern territory of Israel; as with his system of taxation, Solomon felt inclined to let his fellow southerners have an easier time of it than their northern cousins. Again, this surely makes us wonders if everyone in Solomon’s kingdom really did ‘eat and drink and be happy’ under their own fig tree or vine.

International Policies

At first glance, Solomon appears to have posessed some fairly decent diplomatic skills that allowed him to ensure a time of peace and security for his kingdom. He participated in a number of diplomatic marriages to foreign women (1 Kings 3.1, 11.1), which enabled him to formalize peace treaties and diplomatic entente with potentially rival ancient Near Eastern polities. He also formed political alliances with other international powers through trade agreements and some impressive diplomatic hospitality; who, for example, can forget his famous schmooze-fest with the Queen of

Solomon meets the Queen of Sheba

Sheba (sadly for us, sans teapot and tape recorder), where Solomon’s status and wisdom so bedazzled the queen that she bestowed upon him a huge gift of gold, spices, and precious stones?

On closer inspection, however, it appears that Solomon’s diplomatic relationships with other ancient Near Eastern rulers were sometimes less impressive than first imagined. Take, for example, his affiliation with King Hiram of Tyre, where Solomon’s status vis-à-vis this king is more akin to that of servant or vassal subject than political counterpart. Hiram, we are told, supplied Solomon with timber for the construction of his temple in exchange for an annual payment from Solomon of extravagant quantities of wheat and hand-pressed oil for Tyre’s royal household (1 Kings 5.9-11). This treaty essentially put Solomon in the same submissive and subordinate position in relation to Hiram as his northern subjects were with him – providing food for the royal table.

Economic Policies

As we’ve already seen, Solomon took full advantage of trading opportunities with other foreign powers that at times appeared financially beneficial; in 1 Kings 9-10, there are various descriptions of his new commercial ventures, including maritime and land trade, which seem to have been fairly successful, given the dazzling display of luxury goods and wealth he is reported to have accrued through these new business enterprises. However, there are also hints in the text that strongly allude to some glaring inadequacies in Solomon’s economic expertise. For example, 1 Kings 9.11 mentions Solomon ceding 20 cities in Galilee to King Hiram as payment for timber and gold imported from Tyre. Such a payment method implies that Solomon’s state treasury had a serious fiscal deficit, despite all the alleged wealth accrued through international trade and tribute. Moreover, his policy of importing skilled foreign labour and luxury goods (ivory throne or peacock, anyone?) in exchange for exports of staple products such as wheat and oil would surely put any treasury minister into a tailspin.


So, what conclusions can we reach about Solomon’s political performance? If he were standing as a NZ parliamentary candidate for the Theocrat Party on the 26th November, would we be likely to put a cross in his box? Well, in his favour, he did manage to maintain the Damoclean unity of the very fragile kingdom that he inherited from his father David and that in itself was no mean feat. However, he achieved this at an indefensible cost to his subjects, particularly those Israelites in the north and the indigenous Canaanites who remained in the land. Unjust systems of taxation, conscripted and slave labour, and questionable economic policies all serve to make Solomon’s political portrait look distinctly unattractive. Furthermore, there is some irony in the fact that a number of these policies that he used to hold his kingdom together seem to have ignited a tinderbox of resentment in the northern kingdom of Israel, which ultimately led to its secession from its southern neighbour Judah immediately following Solomon’s death. While 1 Kings 11.1-4 blames Solomon’s apostasy against God for this breakup of the united kingdom, we could hypothesise that there may have been other, more secular political reasons for the split.