July 2016

Lost battles of the Christian churches

How do the Christian churches effectively counter such marketplace-driven ideas as assisted suicide, asks Garry Everett.

BY Garry Everett

“Across the past 120 years, the Christian churches in Europe and Australia have lost every significant, long-term battle about social norms and legal measures to underpin them.” Greg Sheridan, The Australian’s foreign editor, made this claim last month in his column (June 4) and went on to argue that the churches’ ‘lost battles’ can be attributed to them drifting too far from the marketplace of ideas.

He’s right.

Consider the following ‘lost battles’: artificial birth control; abortion; divorce; Sunday trading; film standards; same-sex adoption. And there is every likelihood that the churches will soon lose other ‘battles’, such as same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide.

Sheridan attributes the losses to two factors, both of which he claims are failings of church leadership. Firstly, he claims “the churches don’t produce social leaders with any media profile, any traction”. That is, the churches are not in the marketplace. Secondly, he asserts: “If the churches cannot get their own members to follow their basic strictures, they should not demand that the state do their job for them”.

Is he right?

In part. There is truth in his nominated failures of the churches (perhaps with the recent exception of Pope Francis, a leader who does engage with the marketplace), but it is not the whole truth. In my opinion, these ‘lost battles’ can be attributed, in part, to the success of the marketplace selling its ideas.

Voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide provides a contemporary and clear example of such an idea and its sales pitch. There has been a spate of movies in the last few years which have explored this idea from various perspectives. Think Million Dollar Baby, Armour, The English Patient, The Sea Inside Us, Last Cab to Darwin, and currently, Me Before You.

Films are part of the marketplace. They convey popular ideas, as do social media, TV, online discussion groups and coffee clubs. In these rapidly changing environments, ideas come and go with singular speed. In fact, speed is of the essence. Often an idea is justified or validated by its instantaneous popularity.

If we peel back the surface layer of marketplace thinking, for example, in movies, we find there are three common criteria against which arguments are measured. The topic of euthanasia or assisted suicide illustrates this clearly.

Firstly, the idea is presented as a human right – “choosing to die is a basic human right” – and who wants to argue against human rights? Defending human rights is ‘a good’ and attacking such rights is ‘an evil’. Portraying suicide in this way allows the marketplace to depict an evolution of human rights. The old system universally supported all life, but the modern (evolutionary) way is to accept that, when necessary, a person may take his or her own life, especially if the individual is suffering an extreme impairment or a terminal illness.

This argument based on a notion of human rights is further enhanced in the marketplace by appealing to our emotions: sympathy and empathy. This is the second criterion for the assessment of an idea. We often hear expressions such as “everyone will be better off – the sufferer and the supporters”. This is an argument about the wisdom of ending pain for all those who are involved. The marketplace presents this ‘ending pain’ idea as something logical, patently good.

The third criterion is the economic consideration. We hear it expressed as “too much money is being spent to keep him alive when all he wants to do is die”. In a culture where money matters most, saving money by helping people to end their own lives is projected as a social good, a responsible thing to do.

The movie Me Before You illustrates well this marketplace approach. Will, the male lead, is a quadriplegic following a motor vehicle accident. His mother hires a young woman to be his carer. Will is sceptical of Emma’s abilities, and despite her best efforts and the growing sense of love that they share, Will persists in his determination to end his life. However, Will also leaves Emma a substantial fortune in his will (the economic good side of the story). While we all feel sorry for Will, we somehow feel happier (sympathy/empathy) for Emma because she will be ‘better off’ in the end. Thus Will is portrayed as courageous and caring, Emma as supportive and surviving, and by inference, we conclude that suicide is a good thing in this case.

Returning to Greg Sheridan’s assessment of the Christian churches, we are confronted with a serious dilemma. How do the churches effectively counter such marketplace-driven ideas as assisted suicide?

Perhaps we have learnt how not to do it. You may recall that last year Australia’s Catholic Bishops issued a ten-page pastoral letter entitled “Don’t Mess With Marriage” to counter the populist promotion of gay marriage. This letter was sent to schools and parishes – not the marketplace – and employed a non-marketplace strategy (a lengthy printed defence of the status quo).

We might accept that the Bishops were not addressing the marketplace, but only seeking to inform the Church’s adherents. We might even accept that the letter was intended to prepare those adherents to enter the marketplace and argue a contrary point of view.

But ten pages of philosphico-theological reasoning is beyond most Church adherents, and is not the language of the marketplace. Interestingly, one of the first responses from the marketplace in Tasmania was to accuse the Archbishop of Hobart of discrimination (an anti-human rights assessment!).

The Federal election has been decided and some form of voting about gay marriage is assured. The outcome seems inevitable: Australia will support the popular notion.

In my opinion, euthanasia or suicide – including assisted suicide, will follow soon after. I hope I am not right!

Garry Everett

Garry Everett has spent all his professional life, as well as much of retirement, as an educator, and mostly of adults. Garry’s enduring interests lie in family, Scripture, theology and Church renewal. At a local level he is involved in social justice and ecumenism. He is also a member of his parish St Vincent de Paul Conference.

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