We have now established two things when it comes to Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID). First, MAID is here in Canada and has already been used (in approximately 1% of all Canadian deaths). And secondly, there are many complex levels to this discussion and we may all find ourselves holding different perspectives. We now move to the ultimate question: How should Christians and the church choose to live?
It's a major Anabaptist value that the church provides not only a counter-narrative to the world, but also an alternative community, where all are welcomed to live in the kingdom of God right now, as incomplete as it may be. Regardless of what is legal or illegal, we must ask what God calls us to do and how we might grow in Christ's likeness each day.
We must remember that we aren’t the first Christians to ask about the end of life. Although it seems so current because of our post-Christendom context, euthanasia and suicide have been around in cultures for thousands of years. In fact, general questions of death have puzzled us for centuries, even since the beginning of creation. And although scripture doesn’t speak specifically to situations like MAID, we can build an ethic from the narrative of scripture and the example of Jesus that clearly shows there is another way.
The uncertainty of death has made us fear it, even though we know it’s an inevitable end for all human beings. The basic tenets of the Christian faith speak to an order in which we are created beings in a world designed by a sovereign God. The creation stories of Genesis 1-2 shape a worldview in which humanity is created good, through peace, with a purpose, and in and for relationship with God and each other.
But in Genesis 3 we find the story of humanity turning away from God (sin), resulting in the death of humanity. Since all of humanity has sinned we all experience the punishment of death, but the hope of the Christian faith is eternal life through Christ. In Jesus’ resurrection we find our resurrection.
Death is therefore not the end, but rather the point at which we cease to exist in our current form. The Christian narrative speaks to the importance of the time we have on earth, the sanctity of life, the eternal destiny of humanity, and our call to follow and live like Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit. As Christians, we need not fear death. What we should worry about is how we live our lives, reaching out and caring for each other, especially the vulnerable and oppressed.
But no matter how confident we are in these beliefs, we will often encounter people who don’t believe as we do, since we come from so many competing world-views. Explaining the Christian story does little for people who have refused the existence of God. However, there is an alternative narrative and community that the church can offer Canadians. If we show the world there is a good way to deal with the end of life that doesn’t involve MAID, then hopefully more people will choose that way.
The first thing we need to do is remind ourselves how to enter into this dialogue. As in any debate, we are called to show the love of Christ to all people, even those with whom we disagree. We need to listen well to each other and provide spaces for constructive dialogue without condemnation or hate. As we dialogue with each other, we will have the opportunity to give the Christian counter-narrative that invites people into another way of being.
So what are the alternatives when dealing with the end of life? How can we embrace natural death even in suffering and pain? In reality, we know that most people don’t want to die and most people don’t want to take their own lives. MAID is only seen as a last resort, but often people choose it without concrete alternative options.
Palliative care and pain management have come so far in recent decades. Extreme cases of excruciating pain without any relief are very rare. Personal care homes and hospices are in the business of helping people die as peacefully as possible. Yet it’s surprising how many misconceptions exist regarding palliative care.
Sometimes when we think of palliative care we think of hopelessness and uselessness. We may have images of machines and unresponsive patients. We may see it as the place only people who are doomed go to die. In reality, palliative care is a beautiful way to provide care for those facing imminent death. It’s about dignity, comfort, and peace. It’s a process by which patients are given control over their natural death.
Physical pain aside, the emotional strain and fears of being a burden lead some to resort to MAID. We have a fear of being dependant. What if the church was a community that really carried each others burdens? What if we moved away from our individualism and really saw each other as family? What if we were willing to sacrifice our time, money, and resources for one another so that some people wouldn't see themselves as burdens for others? What if we did this for our communities and not only those within our churches? We do see this all the time, and when we do, the results are beautiful.
The church has a long history of operating orphanages, hospitals, homeless shelters, social programs, and other philanthropic services. It’s time for Christians to once again become involved with and supportive of social services that were at one point solely run by the church. This will require much sacrifice, including the time and energy to lobby our governments to invest in palliative care and hospices. But if we can’t rely on them to provide the funding, are we ready to do it ourselves? It's vital that we continue to initiate and participate in support groups, visitation ministries, therapy, and counselling.
When people live in supporting communities that provide life-giving opportunities (no matter what stage of life) they feel valued and cared for regardless of ability or health. When people are given alternatives to end-of-life care that are respectful and dignifying, they will have far less reason to think of MAID as an option. And when the church chooses to carry one another’s burdens with joy in sacrifice, people at the end of life would not need to choose MAID because of guilt. With these and other supports we will be able to face natural death more readily.
Refusing MAID is no longer something Christians can prescribe in a post-Christendom society. If and when people choose it, we may have the difficult experience of walking with families to that end. However, I am hopeful that MAID in Canada is not the slippery slope that some imagine - not because our governments will be good at keeping the boundaries of MAID intact, but because the church will succeed in offering a different way.
There may not be much hope, and we may very likely see the percentage of deaths involving MAID in Canada rise, but it’s a challenge that we can’t remove from the very nature of being Christian. As we follow Christ, we not only become believers of God’s message for us, but embodied participants in His narrative. It will involve sacrifice and dedication on our part, but we may yet see our culture embrace the “good death” as God prescribes it.