Friday, July 26, 2019

Freedom for Life

1. Respect for Life
When God addresses us as our Creator and Lord, he reveals that we are his creatures and servants. In acknowledging this, we recognize that we are not the masters of our own existence. Our life is given to us as a loan by God for us to serve God and neighbor. So with whatever other command God addresses us, God also tells us that we shall will to live. To live means to live freely as a particular person for God and in fellowship with others. It also means, for God’s glory and the sake of others, to give back to God the life loaned to us when he asks for it.

If we recognize that our life is a loan to us from God, we will treat it with respect. We will also respect the life of every other human being for the same reason. Indeed, God’s command to respect life is found explicitly in the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17). Respect first means honoring with wonder and affirming the mystery that each person’s existence is. It is to see every day as one more chance to make our lives extraordinary. Still, our respect for life in this manner is limited by our reverence for God. Remembrance of this limitation is our modesty. It is also a commitment to obey God in those extreme situations where God paradoxically demands a willingness to live as one who freely diminishes or gives back one’s life to God.

Respect for life means respecting our physical needs for sleep, food, etc., neither denying nor indulging them but fulfilling them in a way appropriate to particular humans living before God in solidarity with other human beings and all creation. Regarding the plants of creation, in Genesis 1:28 God gives all fruits and vegetables for our nourishment. Respect means eating all we need but only what we need.

The dominion over animals granted to us in Genesis 1:26, 28 includes the authority to domesticate them. That dominion is limited by our gratitude to God for animals. This gratitude expresses itself in a nurturing relationship toward them. The question of whether to kill animals is a serious one, in that doing so disturbs the peace of creation and resembles homicide. Genesis 1:29-30 assigns plants to both humans and animals for their food. The Old Testament speaks of a time to come when violence between humans and animals will be overcome (cf. Isaiah 11:6f.). In the meantime, God grants us meat for food (Genesis 9:3). Yet even this interim time is the time of God’s grace. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ reconciled humankind, and in it all creation, to God. Given the seriousness of our responsibility in having dominion over the animals, and the utmost gravity of taking life, we can kill animals only with God’s permission and command.

Returning to human existence, respect for life means the will to live and therefore the commitment to remain healthy. Health is the vitality of soul and body needed to serve God and neighbor. Sickness, then, is the relative loss of this vitality. Even when really sick, health is our will to serve God with others to whatever degree we can. Conversely, even when apparently healthy, our will to live for God with others as distinct individuals may be weak. Finally, our will to be healthy includes a will to promote sociocultural environments which nurture health and to oppose those which are destructive to health.

Two other points on sickness and health. First, sickness is no illusion even though some people are mistaken about what ails them. Instead, sickness is a manifestation of both the power of chaos and of God’s righteous judgment against sin. But God in Jesus Christ did reconcile us to himself and did destroy this power at the cross. So our obedience to God now is to join with him in saying no to sickness and death and yes to health and life. We do this through proper diet, exercise, and medicine, of course, but primarily through faith and prayer.

Nothing contrary to what has just been said is intended when we recognize this second point: our lives are by nature limited. “Teach us to number our days” (Psalm 90:12). Sometimes, behind the mask of sickness and death comes the messenger of eternal life. What are we to do? First, no giving an inch to the power of death. Against it we bring faith, prayer, and a stubborn resistance. But if in it we meet the God who is Lord of both life and death, then the death we meet is not evil but good and we may respond to it not only with patience but even with joy.

Yes, the vitality of health abounds with joy. Both Old and New Testaments, especially in the Psalms and Philippians, abound in references to joy. Because Christ is risen we rejoice, we know the joy of celebration and triumph, of soul and body, of food and drink, of dance and prayer. What is this joy? At its simplest: gratitude. Joy is our gratitude for, satisfaction in, and celebration of our attainment of any one of the many little goals of life. Then, if ever so briefly, the restlessness of our life pauses as life itself smiles upon us. Furthermore, true joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and present whenever the Holy Spirit is present. So the will for joy will find it at unexpected times and places and in odd shapes and sizes. True joy strengthens rather than weakens our will for life. It is a refreshing pause rather than a permanent escape. It does not damage fellowship but fosters it. It does not damage our health but restores it.

Ultimately the command to rejoice means being ready for one of life’s fulfilling moments in whatever form God brings it. This of course means being ready for fulfillment when we meet it in the form of suffering and death. Our joy was true in life’s higher moments if we still appreciate it in life’s darkest ones. Either way life and joy come to us as God’s gracious gifts and under his gracious lordship. And either way our life and joy are provisional as we continue to wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.

In addition to a will for life and health, respect for life includes an unshakeable will to be oneself. When God addresses us, his command compels each one of us to take ourselves seriously. God wills that we live, not in a self-centered way, but in the unique way in which he wishes us to live in freedom for him. To live, not for oneself but in one’s uniquely personal way for Christ and the sake of his gospel, is the greatest act of responsibility and test of character. Our character is who we really are in God’s eyes by God’s grace. That becomes clearer to us as we struggle with the Spirit, under the Word, against the flesh and its illusory understanding of our individual identities.

Finally, we might refer to the will for life as our desire for the power of love. The power of love meant here is our ability to benefit from life’s helps and to overcome or at least endure life’s hindrances. We may distinguish this power of love from power as the ability to control according to the follow criteria: (1) The power of love which God gives us is the ability to nurture life. Power from any other source is always the power of death despite all appearances to the contrary. (2) The power of love strengthens our character. (3) It is the ability, not to do anything possible, but to glorify God and to serve others in the unique vocation and with the particular character given to us by God. (4) It is determined fully by God. Sometimes it is the supreme ability to wait for God or to accept defeat.

2. The Protection of Life
In the previous sub-section, we reflected on the positive meaning of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” as respect for life. Negatively, this commandment forbids murder and entails protection of life. But are there extreme circumstances in which God might positively command us to cease protecting and actively take the life of another human being? This is the question we will address in this sub-section.

To begin with, we must note that in the Old Testament God positively commanded the death of certain individuals. Even in the New Testament Paul tells us that governing authorities serve God by bearing the sword against the wicked (Romans 13:1f.). Jesus also states that the supremely unjust Pilate received his power to sentence Jesus to death from above (John 19:10f.). Still, even in the Old Testament Ezekiel may repeat, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11, English Standard Version). So too the heart of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ died so that we all might live. Consequently, we cannot ask too strongly whether the taking of any human life is now murder in the eyes of God.

The taking of one’s own life
Would God ever command us to commit suicide? We must state immediately that suicide is self-murder, and a violation of God’s commandment, if it is autonomously willed. God alone as Lord and giver of life decides when we should return the gift. Autonomous reflections on our own worthlessness or the burden of existence do not suffice. So long as God wills it, life is benefit and God gives us the freedom to affirm it.

Simply because it is a person’s last act does not mean that suicide is any less forgivable than any other sin. God judges the whole person and does so according to his righteous mercy. Yet this does not legitimate the act of rebellion against God which autonomous suicide is.

We can see the repugnance of suicide only through the gospel of our gracious God. No moral arguments, categorical imperatives, or social obligations carry any weight with one assailed by God’s hiddenness, terrified of God’s rejection, and therefore abandoned to one’s apparently supreme autonomy. Only the victorious Word of God proclaiming that life is still possible can penetrate the darkness of this autonomy. But God’s Word that we may live is our freedom to live, not by our own efforts, but by the grace of the God who is with us and for us. This is our joy. This Word is why suicide must be rejected.

But could self-destruction ever be self-offering? God has loaned to each of us the gift of life. We are not free to use this gift as we please but for service to God. But service to God may mean our gallant risking or even the deliberate sacrificing of our own life. When Jesus went to Jerusalem, he knew he would die there and positively willed to do so in obedience to God. In this way Jesus Christ must continue to be the supreme standard by which we measure all talk about the extreme case when God might unambiguously demand that we return to him the life loaned to us for his service.

The taking of the life of others
We turn now, with even greater circumspection, to the taking of the lives of others. According to Matthew 5:21-26, murder in its preliminary form exists in the hearts of us all. Since man was created good, this desire and its lethal consequences must be regarded as a corruption of our nature. The only dispute now is whether an extreme case may exist which justifies homicide in God’s eyes.

We begin with the problem of abortion, the deliberate termination of pregnancy. Our first assertion: abortion is the taking of a human life. From the moment of conception, we have a specific person and not some other form of life. The matter in all seriousness, then, is the willful killing of a person for whom Christ died and therefore on whom the Gospel’s light already shines.

On this question, we must reject both liberal Christian permissiveness and conservative Christian absolutism. First the no must be established, then perhaps the exception in the extreme case. The rejection of abortion is based on the commandment against murder understood positively as enabling us by grace to respect human life: to honor with wonder every human being from the moment of conception. No prohibition alone against abortion can create this wonderful honoring. The spiritual climate in our churches obviously has proven inadequate. Its basis is solely God’s gracious Word that we are free to live and able by God’s mercy to allow others to live as well. This is not a matter of imposing the law but of proclaiming grace. Only in the light of this grace may we hear God’s no to abortion. Without at all weakening this objection to abortion, God’s mercy in Christ also means that even those who have committed this sin have not committed an unforgivable one.

The extreme case is based on the presupposition that God is Lord of the life he has loaned to each person. By definition the extreme case is quite rare. One such case: when either the life of the mother or the life of the child must be sacrificed to save the other. First, God’s command does not favor automatically one or the other. The decision in this case must be made by the mother with a conscience both critical and clear. Third, it must be made freely in obedience to God. Finally, to be made with the needed confidence and joy, the decision must rest in the knowledge that God’s love is greater than all the ambiguities involved.

We must reject euthanasia because, despite intense pain, there can be no certainty that life has stopped being God’s blessing. Might not truly loving family and friends devote themselves to doing everything possible to care for and support to the end the sick person’s will to fight the good fight and stubbornly resist the disease? And would not a physician’s participation in this killing compromise the medical profession’s first commitment to do no harm? With abortion we faced the painful matter of life vs. life. Here, however, the choice is death or life with suffering. This choice as such cannot be reconciled with the commandment of God to protect life.

Killing in self-defense
We must first ask whether self-defense may be commanded by God. Paul called Christians in Corinth unrighteous for taking each other to court (1 Corinthians 6:1-11); that is, for exercising legal self-defense. He exhorted Christians in Rome not to avenge themselves but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-20). In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus lumps one attacking us with the one begging from us. The rule, then, is that self-defense is not commanded by God. More deeply, when attacked physically or verbally, returning the attack only makes us aggressors, damaging another’s well-being even as we degrade ourselves. Furthermore, we are attacked out of some perceived need. Counter-attacking does not meet that need but only leaves it even more unmet.

Killing in self-defense, then, cannot be considered our normal legitimate response to dangerous aggression but only, if anything, the extreme case. We again affirm that God’s commandment against murder is God’s gracious Word calling and enabling us to serve rather than to fear others. This Word of God, then, destroys any spontaneous justification of self-defense. Through it God establishes himself as our able defender. But as people at peace with God, committed to the well-being of others, and self-disciplined in this way, God may ask us to actively resist the wicked by restraining someone from attacking ourselves or others. And when ordered by God, this resistance is not responding to evil with evil. The cause, as judged by God’s commanding Word, is not our own but his. The cause then is not self-defense but service to God.

The question of whether God would ever command us to kill in self-defense we will address under capital punishment.

Capital punishment
To begin with, if self-defense is ever legitimate, then individual arbitrariness and communal anarchy are best avoided when counter-attack is executed by civil authority on behalf of citizens according to established law. This increases rather than lessens individual responsibility. It means that each one of us is represented by and therefore has a share in every action taken by the police and courts on our perceived behalf.

There are two justifications of capital punishment we must address. One, such punishment protects society by eliminating one source of violent behavior and by setting an intimidating example for others. Two, such punishment is an expression of God’s retributive justice.

For Christians, the problem with accepting capital punishment as divine retribution is that Jesus Christ already suffered the death penalty for all sin. Death is not the punishment which reflects the righteousness of God. Punishment reflecting God’s righteousness would reveal to the criminal God’s forgiveness, provide him with the chance to live for God rather than against him, restrain him from further evil while encouraging his positive participation in society, and affirm his humanity rather than denying it.

Regarding society’s protection, society is better protected by acknowledging in humility its responsibility for and its solidarity with criminals and therefore by hearing the question which all crime asks of it. Second, society is a provisional order meant to protect the lives and rights of its citizens. Capital punishment contradicts this and therefore threatens rather than protects the society practicing it. Finally capital punishment, rather than inspiring respect for law, inspires contempt for it by itself justifying the use of all necessary means. Therefore, on the basis of God’s command to respect and protect life, we must reject both capital punishment and killing in self-defense.

Modern warfare involves not only soldiers but all citizens. Furthermore, the real issue in modern warfare is not the well-being of human beings but the maintenance and expansion of the power to control. This power is not something we gain but is something which possesses us. Our love for it makes us suicidal. Third, war means nothing less than the commitment to destroy the other side using every possible means. Given these presuppositions, our first response as Christians is to express our thorough revulsion for war and our equally rigorous commitment to peace.

The Church first must not accept war as normal but as abnormal and understand it not as the proper work of the state but as an alien one only. The normal task of the state, for which it has been established by God, is to enhance the well-being of human beings by establishing a just peace. When peace is fashioned for illegitimate ends rather than to nurture people, war and revolution become inevitable. The Church’s commitment, then, is to work for a meaningful and viable peace within and between states that makes war unnecessary. Given the horrible nature of modern warfare, the illegitimate means and ends of all modern states, and the modern idolatry of technology and the national state, our final response as Christians today must be the rejection of all calls to arms and a thorough commitment to developing a way of living that nurtures every human being and all creation.

Copyright © 2019 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.