by Lieschen Venter
Student of Theology • Lecturer of Operations Research
As the sermon draws to its conclusion, the pastor’s final exhortation rings out: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed.” Some, perhaps those who have gained some experience, would nod wisely, but most hear only half-heartedly. How are we to accept, nay, rejoice, in a state which is in contradiction of our every survival instinct and sense of justice? Any person who has walked the earth for even a few years will testify: in this world there are many trials, sorrows and tribulations. The whole of creation groans and we groan along with it. Yet of all the creatures subject to the indiscrimination of suffering, humans are the only beings to ask of their pain, “why?” Why is there suffering? Why do we suffer? And most honestly, why do I suffer?
When Eve ate from the tree and shared its fruit with Adam, their eyes were opened. They immediately knew things they did not know before. They realised that they were naked and therefore felt vulnerable for the first time in their existence. They were newly confronted with a realisation of their own limitations as creatures, their shame, and with the idea of mortal death. Their eyes were opened to self-consciousness and with it came new contamination of dignity with pride.
Human dignity is a central consideration of Christian philosophy. It holds that dignity of the human person is rooted in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God. This dignity is expressed in human agency and free will with the further understanding that free will in turn springs from human creation in the image of God.
In February of 2015, advocate Robin Stransham-Ford was diagnosed with prostate cancer. At 65 years of age, and at the culmination of a seemingly successful life, he applied to the Pretoria High Court for the right to end this life by euthanasia or assisted suicide. Any other death, he argued, would rob him of his constitutional right to dignity. In April of that year the court ruled in favour of the application, but Stransham-Ford was overcome by his illness two hours before the order was granted. Since then, the Supreme Court has overturned the decision, making euthanasia and assisted suicide an illegal practice in South Africa.
How do we make sense of an existence fraught with suffering? We turn to our highest legal authority, our Constitution, and find it holds before us both the right to dignity and the right to live. How do we rank these rights in cases where they appear to be contradictory?
Euthanasia (or mercy killing) is the act of putting to death or allowing to die, by withholding extreme medical measures, a person suffering from an incurable, and especially painful, disease or condition. A related concept is that of assisted suicide, where the suffering person performs the killing act himself, with only a measure of assistance from another person. Even as we look at the definition we might be surprised to find how logical a solution this appears to be.
Our culture is unhealthily comfortable with the idea of death. Worldviews based increasingly on the philosophies of Darwinism, secularism and our desensitisation, cause us to barely notice when we see a character on-screen often violently murdered. We forget that one or two generations ago, only those in military or emergency medical services were exposed to this level of violence. And our indifference leads us to consider death as just another option in our autonomous life management system. Death becomes for us a tool with which we attempt to uphold what we believe is our dignity.
But what is a Biblical worldview of death? The cultural view is a total reversal of the Biblical model. From God’s Word we learn that death entered into the world as a curse (Genesis 3:19) where it continues as an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). Life is a sacred gift from God (Genesis 2:7) and when given the choice between life and death, God told Israel to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Euthanasia rejects the gift and embraces the curse; it forfeits what is good and replaces it with what is not.
And what is Christ’s view of dignity? God, Creator, omnipotent and forever, incarnates into this world and partakes in our suffering. Paul tells the Philippians, “Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8). Our God does not stand in the distance expecting us to endure the impossible, but instead enters into this broken world to redefine everything we thought the human ideal to be. Bleeding and naked, He finds resolution in the Father’s perfect will of the cross. Our dignity finds its fulfilment in our partaking of Christ in all His humility.
The Kingdom of God is our wonderful upside down Kingdom of redefined treasures. The last is first, the master is the servant, the poor are rich, and the solidarity in Christ’s suffering is our true dignity. Death can never be a means to an end. For a perfect Father rich in compassion, for a God who has entered into our suffering, for a Spirit present at every bedside, we find our dignity in humility as we submit to His will.