Monday, 22 April 2013


Good Friday

Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit. Matthew 27 v50.

The cruelty of crucifixion was not limited to the brutal hammering of rough iron nails through soft wrists; indeed people could be crucified very effectively by simply being tied up so that their weight hung on their outstretched arms. The true cruelty was that, whether nailed or tied, the humiliated victim could survive in agony for many hours or even a day or more if he could keep pushing himself up occasionally with his legs; that way he could delay the death by suffocation that hanging on outstretched arms would bring when dehydration, exhaustion or loss of blood eventually prevented him from pushing down any longer. That’s why breaking the legs of victims was sometimes used to hasten death. According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus neither suffered for many hours nor had to be thus hurried on his way; he had already ‘given up the ghost’. The words ‘he gave up his spirit’ or ‘he breathed his last’ at the climax of Matthew’s narrative of the passion of Jesus are quickly read, their possible precision missed in the drama of the moment; the writer seems to have felt that it would not do to say simply that ‘Jesus died’. Luke’s gospel claims that Jesus at the point of death explicitly commended his soul to his Father. All three synoptic gospels tell us that Jesus ended his life with a loud cry. We cannot know how historically accurate this account is but the story as it stands prompts us to reflect on a troubling matter with which most of us will have to deal at some time in our lives.
                The story suggests that Jesus, realising that his options had narrowed to a choice between death now or the same death many painful hours later, deliberately ended his life, presumably by ceasing to push down with his legs. This would be of-a-piece with other aspects of his story. Realising the mortal risks he was running in going to Jerusalem to challenge religious orthodoxy at its shrine, he nevertheless went there, demonstrating a sense that there comes a time when all that must be done has been done. It represents a refusal to accept the dominion of death that clinging to life seems to bow to. And notice that the gospel account describes how Jesus refused the offer of drugged wine, which might have relieved some of the pain but might also have clouded his ability to carry out an intention to ‘giving up the ghost’ in a deliberate way.
                If he did indeed deliberately hasten his death in this way, who could blame him? Quite a lot of people, if we are to judge by what is said about suicide. Let me be precise here: I am talking about the case where a person of sound mind whose options have drastically narrowed to a choice between death now and death a painful while later prefers the earlier death, and acts on that preference. The church’s representatives generally seem inclined to tell the dying person to wait for death to come in its own – God’s – time. Religious medical opinion points out that physical pain can now be very well managed; whatever your disease, you can survive quite pain free until your proper time has come. Even the secular law threatens sanctions against anyone assisting such a person to die, citing wariness of unscrupulous family members and the pressure they might put on elderly or sick relatives.
                The religious response to voluntary euthanasia relies heavily on the god-out-there belief. It may fairly be expressed like this: The god who gave you life cared for you throughout your life and continues to care for you now you are dying; he will let you die at the time it is right for you to die. It might add: The life you live belongs not to you but to the god-out-there, and therefore it is no more yours to destroy, for whatever reason, than the life of another person. And: Since your life is a gift from the god-out-there, you must make the very fullest use of it; to throw this gift in the face of the divine giver is blasphemously churlish. And again: There may be things that the god-out-there still has for you to do, perhaps by bearing your suffering courageously in faith as an example to others; to hasten your death will deprive him of this last service you can do him. Yet such ideas are inconsistent with other elements of the religious viewpoint. If we are to let the god-out-there decide when we are to die, where does that leave our – religiously-inspired – prolongation of the lives of the sick? The astonishing treatments we can now offer must surely come under the heading of interfering with the plans of the god-out-there at least as much as hastening an imminent, predictable death. And if suffering courageously in faith as an example to others is what a prolonged dying gives us the opportunity of giving to the god-out-there, the offering might seem hopelessly compromised by the administration of pain-relieving drugs; religious hospices ought to be letting cancer take its painful course without using morphine, not assuring us of the possibility of pain-free death.
                But the real difficulty is not these inconsistencies. It is that the religious point of view relies not simply on the existence of a god-out-there, but on seeing him as a demanding imperial potentate, a feudal lord-of-the-manor writ very large, casting us in the role of serfs whose only role in life is to serve him and flatter his glory. The alternative view, the Jesus view, which sees him as a caring, loving parent leads naturally to a quite different conclusion. Parents of children whose life-chances are unacceptably narrow know that their love may involve the pain of welcoming an end to prolongable life, recognising that its prolongation might indeed be a form of selfishness. Of course common sense and parental hope need to remind us that we can sometimes live through what seems to be unbearable pain and regain our full vigour, that an early surrender may not always be wise; but they do not turn this into a prohibition on deliberately ending our own lives as they draw to a close. This common, human sense agrees with the practice of kindly medical attendants down the centuries, and Jesus often seems to have backed kindly common sense against the religious point of view. It appears that he may have taken the same view when it came to his own dying. Why should not we? 

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