Suffering, heavy hearts, and Oregon

October 11, 2014

As an Oregonian, as a fellow 29 year old woman, as a girl who watched her dad die from cancer on November 1, 2012 — two years to the day before Brittany Maynard will end her life — I’ve been having a lot of feelings this week.

Every day, I find two or three (or more) new bloggers who have written counterpoints to Brittany's story — and every day, I find myself a bit more disappointed with the blogging community as a whole, and the Christian community in particular, for its response.

I have just a few of my own thoughts to share — on suffering, on heavy hearts, and on Oregon.

On suffering

It has been said that, if Brittany chooses when and how to end her life, she won't suffer. That her dying won't be hard. That she's missing an opportunity to show others what it is to suffer well. That she's robbing her loved ones of the chance to walk this road with her.

These are all different ways of saying the same thing: that Brittany is selfish. And I simply don't see it.

I can't imagine that she isn't suffering as we speak. Her dying will be hard no matter when or how it happens; that's how death is. And I bet if you asked the people closest to her, they would tell you that she has walked this road with beauty and grace — and that they have been privileged to walk it with her.

This is also an occasion when people like to parade out the Christianese paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:13: God will never give you more than you can bear. But let’s look at what that verse really says:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

First of all, this verse is talking about temptation — not suffering. And furthermore, it doesn’t say that you won’t be overwhelmed; the promise is that God will be faithful to provide a way out.*

On heavy hearts

The phrase that keeps showing up — on blogs, in comment streams, across Facebook feeds — is my heart is so heavy for her. And that's not wrong, because this is heavy, this tragedy, and your heart should bear that weight. Like when I was browsing a moms' Facebook group this week and saw a post from a fellow mom about her son who was stillborn six days ago, when she was little more than a month from her due date. I sat and wept for this woman, a stranger. A heavy heart — appropriate indeed.

These heavy hearts should elicit a response. They should compel us to pray for her and her family, to talk to each other about tough issues, even to grieve for her.

What doesn't strike me as an appropriate response are all of these blog posts written as open letters to Brittany. Bloggers writing as if they know her (which, to my knowledge, none of them do) because they read 1,500 words about her in the Washington Post.

That isn't to say that we shouldn't be writing about these topics; to the contrary, I believe this is an important conversation and one that the faith community should be wrestling through on a regular basis (and not just when a beautiful twentysomething gets a national headline). Stories like Brittany's should remind and inspire us to press in and unpack all that is messy and hard and incomprehensible about the human experience.

But we should be writing about what we know: our experience and our research. We don't know her, even if it feels otherwise, and that's what gives all of these articles a decidedly condescending, sanctimonious, presumptuous air.

If reading about Brittany inspires you to tell the story of how you made a different choice, that's wonderful and beautiful and the world needs to hear your voice. Many of the stories I've read this week are compelling and powerful — or at least would've been had they not been cheapened by using a salacious literary device.

Some will say that, by telling her story, she was inviting criticism and judgment and commentary — that she should have expected it. And for all I know, she was, and she did. But that argument is akin to the one that Jennifer Lawrence has no right to privacy because of her celebrity. Very different stories, obviously, but they share an undertone: If you put yourself out into the world, you are responsible for how people treat you.**

On Oregon

When I originally read Brittany’s story, my first thought was that I was proud to be an Oregonian. I know that I stand in the margin on this issue: a Jesus-follower who advocates for such legislation. But I’m proud to live in a state that (at least some of the time) supports personal liberties.

My stance on physician-assisted suicide legislation has nothing to do with my own convictions or ethics. What it does have to do with are my beliefs about the role of the state in governing morality.

The government should legislate morality when it comes to someone having their rights violated by someone else — rape, murder, and theft all being obvious examples. But the government has no business legislating what you do with your own body. Because here’s the thing: Letting the government enforce personal morality seems like a great idea until their ideologies no longer align with yours. Then you’ve given them power that you can't ever take back.

My husband put it best: When the state legislates how and when you can end your life, it’s the ultimate expression that you no longer own your body.***

Should we, as caring, compassionate, grace-filled people, put our time and resources toward helping people who we believe are choosing poorly? Of course. Should we provide things like hospice care as an alternative to euthanasia, or rehab for addiction, or support groups for sex workers? Definitely. But should we criminalize these people? Absolutely not.

A final thought

I haven't read anything about Brittany's faith, and that makes me hesitant to talk to her as one who is inside the church (which is what most Christian bloggers are doing, in my view). But for whatever reason, Zephaniah 3 was on my heart as I finished writing this post, so I'll simply end there.

Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Fear not, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing."

* On a personal note, I absolutely believe that times of suffering and struggle are times to press into God and seek his face. And this is exactly what many people mean when they say that God won't give you more than you can bear; what they really mean is God is with you, and for you, and his indwelling Spirit will enable you to persevere when your flesh cannot. But maybe we should say just that instead of offering platitudes and Christian catchphrases.

** Speaking of Jennifer Lawrence, there's an article going around claiming that a man looking at her nude photos and a man looking at pornography is the same thing. But it's very, very different. A woman who models for Playboy gives permission for her nude body to be seen by anyone who so desires. Jennifer Lawrence did not. It's the act of theft that makes one a crime, and the other not.

*** As Jesus followers, we voluntarily surrender our rights to our bodies to Christ. But that's completely different and separate from surrendering one's rights to government.