Christian Social Ethics and the 3 Massachusetts Ballot Questions
Remarks delivered at “How Does our Faith Influence of Vote,” an ecumenical forum and dialogue on Wednesday October 24, 2012 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Newton. For more information and congregational resources, video summary, bulletin inserts, hymns, discussion questions and “holy listening” guide, visit: http://masscouncilofchurches.org/ballot2012.htm
Last week, I watched Twitter as a Christian pastor and theologian Greg Boyd in MN with 10,000 followers wrote that he felt “called to abstain” from voting. Boyd tweeted “I’m better able to place ALL my hope in Christ when I don’t.” Now I happen to think that is a cop-out from the obligations of citizenship and it’s possible to place your hope in Christ, advocate and even vote for just public policy. I come from a Congregational Christian tradition, especially in New England, where our obligations as Christians were intimately entwined with our obligations as citizens of the Commonwealth, sometimes unhealthily entwined. (It’s the Congregationalists that give Massachusetts town meeting, right?) I believe voting is a civic duty in belonging to the community. And yes, there is in fact a long Christian tradition of separating from the wider culture to build some attempt at a perfected community. So unless you’re Shaker, you live in this world and your vote affects your own life and the lives of those around you. As much as I disagree with Boyd’s decision not to vote, it does point to the gap between our Christ and our candidates. Our options at the ballot box are often quite far from the kind of restorative justice we hear Jesus proclaim. Our public policy is not the fullness of the kingdom of God. As Christians, we live between the already and the not yet.
Or in the words of theologian Miroslav Volf in a recent Facebook post: Christ is the measure for all things, but “for Christians, the debate should not be whether one’s allegiance to Christ trumps one’s allegiance to the nation. The debate should be what key values for national life follow from allegiance to Jesus Christ and what the proper relation is between the universal claims of Christ and the particular claims of the nation.”
We know that these policy options are not everything we want for our broken world. We are here tonight because we want to make faithful, informed decisions on November 6. We are also here to model a faithful way of being in conversation with one another even when we may not agree on policy. We know the body of Christ is fractured along lines of denomination. Increasingly though, we are seeing some re-alignment of Christians around policy issues, so that a liberal Methodist can have more affinity with a liberal Roman Catholic than with a conservative Methodist. We are here to practice holy listening with one another. There is not a political litmus test for inclusion in the body of Christ: Inclusion in the body of Christ comes not at the ballot box but at the waters of baptism. We believe Christians of good conscious can disagree about the proper policy tools and still be in relationship. The world has seen plenty of fighting between Christians about immigration, marriage, healthcare, taxes and our candidates. We want to model another way of being in relationship, holy listening, even if only for an hour.
Massachusetts 3 Ballot Questions
We will consider the binding Ballot Questions on every ballot in all 351 cities and towns. Many of you will have non-binding questions in your municipality as well. Broadly speaking, Question 1 is about work, and Questions 2 & 3 are about suffering- I will weight my remarks accordingly. When considering suffering, Job is your text. Try to remember the 3 visitors to Job: for 7 days and 7 nights they stayed with Job and said nothing. When they did speak and try to explain the meaning of their friend’s suffering, they were fairly useless. As we turn to Questions 2 & 3, remember that we are striving to reflect the initial pastoral witness of Job’s friends and avoid their blundering attempt to explain another person’s suffering.
I also suspect that my summation of the ethical issues for Christians in each question will satisfy neither proponents nor opponents. I ask your forgiveness where I fall short, and ask you extend to me a generosity of spirit. We are aiming towards what we aim towards in our interreligious dialogue: presenting the other in the best possible light and not comparing your best to their worst.
Christianity is as varied and diverse as any other religion. So there is no singular “Christian” ethical way of thinking about these questions. What are the questions we should ask as Christians to aid our thinking about good public policy?
Will all 3 Ballot initiatives in Massachusetts, ask yourself:
- If passed, who might benefit from this law?
- If passed, who might be left vulnerable by this law?
Question 1: “Access to certain automotive repair information?” Christians have a long tradition of scriptural and theological thinking about work. So as this Ballot Question revolves around access to information, whose work do we value- the automobile manufacturers or automotive repair shops? Is this about intellectual property rights? Or is it about creating an even playing field to allow mechanics the ability to earn a living? Christianity has a strong tradition of asking questions about what is a just profit for work and what is exploitation of labor. If passed, it appears that smaller auto repair shops would benefit. Consumers could benefit. If passed, it appears that manufacturers could be disadvantaged from where they are now.
Questions 2 & 3 beg us to ask, if passed would there be those left vulnerable under the new law? If passed would be helped? Question 2 and 3 both are designed to alleviate pain. We can make a distinction between physical pain and existential, spiritual and emotional suffering. We have seen the growth of the hospice movement, designed to allow patients to die at home with their pain managed and their family tended to as well. Palliative care has only been a medical board certified specialty within the last 10-15 years. But we have seen great advances in the quality of pain management that is available to most patients at the end of life. Yet, not everyone has access to such care. So in many ways, we have advanced medically technology to tend to the physical pain in many (but not all) illness. Harder to tend to is the existential, spiritual and emotional suffering of dying. This is the big looming pastoral care question that hangs over questions about “Prescribing medicine to end life” and “medical marijuana.” We talk about bearing the suffering of others- do these proposed laws help us bear the suffering of others faithfully? How do we as the body of Christ express something of the compassion and care of God to those in pain and suffering? Christianity has a complex relationship with suffering. There are times when oppressed people are directed towards Jesus’ suffering on the cross as a way to keep them oppressed. But many of our saints and wise ones teach that we learn something of God and ourselves in suffering- not that we seek suffering out, but when it comes we learn.
Question 2: Prescribing Medicine to End Life
Let’s own at the beginning of this conversation that Question 2 is wildly complex and often highly personal. Most all of us have experience with family and loved ones dying, sometimes with much suffering, sometimes with a joyful release into the waiting embrace of God. I bring to this my experience watching my aunt die slowly of MS while my mother was her health care proxy and the suicide attempts of people I love. How do our personal experiences impact how we think about public policy? As we discuss this together, please extend abundant compassion to your dialogue partners, not knowing all the struggles another has gone through before they arrived here this evening.
Language matters here: Proponents call it “Death with Dignity,” Opponents “Physician-Assisted Suicide,” and the State titled the Question “Prescribing Medicine to End Life.” Each of those terms could be interrogated further- why is it dignified to die by your own hand? Does the negative frame on “Physician-Assisted Suicide” trade on the cultural shame of suicide? I’m going to try to stay with the clunkier title of “Prescribing Medicine to End Life,” or Question 2 for short.
For me, one of the guiding questions as a Christian is to ask: what is dying well in the light of Christ? Or dying well unto the Lord? We are a people who believe death is not the end. My preferred resurrection hymn is Johnny Cash’s “Ain’t no grave can hold my body down.” Does this law help us die well? What is our Christian witness in death and dying that our death-phobic culture needs from us?
Let’s go to those guiding questions: if this law passed, who could potentially benefit and who could potentially be left vulnerable?
For the proponents of Question 2, this legislation could “benefit” those who have less than 6 months to live. The intention is to allow individuals to control their own death in the face of suffering. Proponents see the legislation as a compassionate response to an intractable and grievous situation. In Oregon, almost 90% of the people who ultimately took a lethal dose where already in hospice care. You could read this statistic as telling us that those who chose to end their life are having their pain attended to through hospice care- and thus making different decision about why to end their life. Again in Oregon, 91% of those who sought prescription cited “loss of autonomy” as their top reason for seeking medicine to end their life. But if you think that this is a benefit, then there are necessarily terminally ill patients who cannot participate. The law would require the ability for the patient to have full mental capacities and to self-administer the drugs (this is why it’s not technically euthanasia). Perhaps two of the diseases with the most agonizing path to death, patients with ALS could not self-administer and patients with dementia could not comprehend the forms. Proponents also argue that medical professionals ‘benefit’ under the proposed law with conscious clauses that allow Drs, nurses and pharmacists to opt out.
If Question 2 is considered a benefit, you could read this as being about autonomy and the ability for an individual to control their own life and ultimately, death. Christianity has traditions placing a high value on the personal accountability to one’s God. But also, Christianity does not always place the highest value on autonomy. We value the Church, the gathered body, the family.
For the opponents of Question 2, this legislation could potentially “benefit” unscrupulous family members or insurance companies seeking to get out from under costly payments at the end of the life of a client.
Consider who might be left vulnerable by this legislation: For the opponents of Question 2, this medical option could be manipulated to prematurely end the life of a sick patient. Medicine is not merely a science and doctors do not always accurately predict when a patient has 6 months left to live. No medical professional need be present when the pills are taken, so there is the danger of the medicine not working as intended. Opponents see those with mental illness as vulnerable under this legislation. Terminal patients are required to meet with two different doctors to meet the requirements to gain a Rx, but neither Dr must be a psychiatrist. All patients requesting a life-ending prescription would not be required to meet with a psychologist or psychiatrist. There’s a strong sense among disability advocates that the people with disabilities would be vulnerable in a society that does not value broken bodies. Family members and children could be vulnerable to the approx 100 pills in a lethal dosage that remain in a household in between the time the prescription is filled and the drugs are taken, or if the drugs are not taken.
Reporter John Hockenberry of NPR spoke at the Al Filipov lecture at Trinitarian Church Concord earlier this fall. Paraplegic since a car accident at 19, many visitors to his hospital said “it’s ok to be contemplating suicide.” Except he wasn’t. But then wondered if he should be? What signals do we send about which lives are worth living? How powerful is suggestion? And as we try to build a just society where our government reflects our highest values, what does it signal to have government-endorsed means to end one’s life?
Another way of asking the question about who potentially benefits and who suffers under a new law is to ask: What would happen if these bills are defeated- then who benefits and who suffers?
Question 3: Medical Marijuana
Ask again, if passed would there be those left vulnerable under the new law? If passed who would be helped? From the video you saw the case for use of marijuana to alleviate pain and nausea for people suffering from disease and chronic condition.
Remember the context here in Massachusetts: a successful ballot initiative in 2008 which decriminalized possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. A few weeks ago Nicholas and I were walking through the Public Gardens from the MCC office and ran into at least 3 groups of high schoolers smoking up amidst the rose bushes. We live in a Commonwealth were the voters have already said they do not think possession of small amounts of marijuana are criminal activity. If you support extending this movement, a medical marijuana law allows for regulation, instead of an illegal activity of growing or purchasing.
Ostensibly, Question 3 is a question about pain and suffering and ways to alleviate that for the sick. But even some proponents will say that this is a backdoor way as a state to undercut the destructive and unproductive US federal drug policy. If you support upending the “war on drugs” does it matter how you disassemble it?
The effectiveness of US federal drug policy deserves much more time and nuance than we can give here. We ask whether it is just to prosecute people for possession of small amounts of drugs. We ask how our beliefs about addictions as diseases square with our thinking about punishment. We ask whether the “war on drugs” is effective. We ask what does it mean for a supposedly “Christian” nation to disproportionally be arresting and incarcerating people of color and poor people. Is it economically rational to spend this much federal money on something that has yet to work well?
Opponents will say that if this is really about medical prescriptions for pain relief, then marijuana should go through the same steps that every other pain relieving drug goes through: Medical testing, double-blind trials, and ultimately FDA approval allowing for doctors to prescribe and pharmacies to distribute. Proponents point to the current US federal drug policy that makes it near impossible for researchers and drug manufacturers to run tests on the medical value of marijuana- thus, marijuana can’t be treated like any other pain reliever and therefore we can’t apply the same standard.
Ask again, If passed who would left vulnerable under the new law? If passed who would be helped? Proponents hold that if passed, the law would benefit those with prolonged illness and chronic disease who cannot access pain relief by other means. If not passed, the state is denying them medicine they need to live life abundantly. Again, go back to the conversation in Question 2 about the complex Christian relationship with suffering.
Opponents are concerned that the vulnerable among us could be exposed to drug use, if the law passes. Would schools and neighborhoods be vulnerable to the location of dispensaries or is this a case of ‘not in my back yard?” Opponents have raised concerns that communities could be vulnerable because the legislation as written does not include any provisions about where marijuana dispensaries would be located. Conversely, proponents state that the Department of Public Health would regulate location and those attempting to fraudulently use it would face felony charges. Opponents point to the unlimited number of conditions that could be treated with medical marijuana and see a system with huge potential for abuse. As written there are no age restrictions, so conceivably a minor could obtain a prescription without parental consent.
How you think about marijuana influences a lot of how you think about Question 3: is marijuana a “gateway backwards” leading people off addictive and harmful painkillers and something innocuous, or is marijuana a “gateway forwards” towards more addictive drugs. What are your analogies for marijuana? Is it like more like alcohol, nicotine or like St. John’s Wort? And depending on what you think marijuana is most like, that will help determine what kind of safeguards you want to put in place.
Part of what is so complex about this conversation is how little we have an honest and open conversation about marijuana use among the general population. There are real concerns from addicts in recovery that increased availability will lead more people to harder drugs and addiction. But how available is marijuana now? And how commonly used? We don’t talk about it. A friend of a friend spoke recently about a Bishop (who will remain nameless) turning to his neighborhood dealer to seek some relief for his wife in cancer treatment. Some have talked about marijuana as being “ungovernable,” because it can be cultivated by the most novice of gardeners. Are our laws just catching up with where people already are? If cancer patients are already taking to the streets or backyards to acquire marijuana, if passed this law provide a legal, highly regulated means for them to acquire it. Again, what does this mean about a Christian witness in the face of suffering?
Beyond the legislation, Christians have an obligation to build a caring community around those who are suffering. I’m yet unconvinced that legislation can build this caring community. Legislation may make it easier for some people to get the medicine or relief they desire, but legislation won’t bring a friend to sit at the bedside. Beyond Nov 6, the Church has plenty of work to do for those who still suffer. However you vote, we have a pastoral obligation beyond the ballot.
Christianity offers an imaginative, symbolic role to our broken world. We hold up broken bread and say it is healing body. We hold up the meek and say they shall inherit the earth. We hold up death and say it is not the end. We say that what we see is not all there is. At times, we hold up laws and declare them unjust. If, as a Christian, you support a position on the ballot, what symbolic signal are you sending? As a Christian, if you support Question 2, what witness does that give to people with disabled bodies? What witness do you offer those in prolonged illnesses? As a Christian, if you support Question 3, what witness does that give to youth? What witness does it give to the suffering? As a Church, what are the values we model for one another? While language about “rights” may be most meaningful in public square, as a Christian community we have “responsibilities” to one another. There may be things that are legal but not advisable- remember Paul talking about whether or not the faithful in Corinth could eat the meat sacrificed to the pagan gods. Yes, you have the liberty to do so, but “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak.” 1 Cor 8:9. As Christians, we try to hold to the idea there is a difference between what we can do and what we should do. We also hold a long tradition to prophetic witness in unjust situations. You carry all your values, personal experiences, tradition and civic obligations with you into these next small group conversations. Follow the model of Jesus: speak passionately, listen compassionately.