Modernity gets us caught up in some funny contradictions. For example, in the United States we now spend between 15 and 17 percent of the gross national product on crisis-care medicine, which of course has nothing to do with the health of the population. If we’re interested in the health of the population, the most important things to focus on are windows, sewers and good nutrition. Crisis-care medicine is not going to keep us alive. It may keep someone alive another six months or a year, but it won’t necessarily improve the health of the population. But we are spending 16 percent of the gross national product on crisis-care medicine. Sixty percent of that goes to people in their last year of life. It’s interesting how the medical imperative presumes that if we can do it, we have to do it. The way we show we love Mom is to make sure she gets every possible treatment, which may be another form of torture in the end.
This relates to the presumption that people should not have children if they’ve been diagnosed with a mental disability-that abortion is the appropriate response. I think that presumption is based on our understanding of compassion; it is humanism gone mad. We have to be careful what we mean when we say “humanity.” Christian humanism is determined by the Father’s sending of the Son to be one of us. So humanism must always begin with Jesus’ humanity. When that isn’t the case, then in a world of speed and placelessness, compassion becomes a way to say certain people would be better off dead.
> Stanley Hauerwas in Living Gently in a Violent World, by Hauerwas and Jean Vanier (52)
At what point does the culture of life end and the cult of life begin?
Jean Vanier is the head of L’Arche, an international network of faith-based communities in which developmentally disabled people and non-disabled people live together. The communities are meant to treat the disabled with the dignity and love that the rest of the world most often denies them. L’Arche recognizes, as the late Pope John Paul II once said, that “the difficulties of the disabled are often perceived as a shame or a provocation and their problem as burdens to be removed or resolved as quickly as possible. Disabled people are instead living icons of the crucified Son. They reveal the mysterious beauty of the One who emptied himself for our sake and made himself obedient unto death.”
Our first inclination might be to peg L’Arche as the ultimate celebration of life, what happens when we choose to show hospitality to people who are inconvenient and different. L’Arche seems like it ought to be a clear answer to those who doubt that the severely developmentally disabled can live with the dignity and love that they deserve and who believe that they are “better off dead.” And to some extent, it is.
But L’Arche is particularly good at celebrating life in all its fullness, even its end. Vanier writes, “Over the last forty-two years we’ve had many deaths, and we’ve spent a lot of time celebrating death. It’s very fundamental to our community…We gathered to say how beautiful [a recently deceased community member] was, how much she had brought to us. Her sisters came, and we wept and laughed at the same time. We wept because she was gone, but we laughed because she did so many beautiful things” (32).
Vanier’s entire work is built upon protecting and nurturing life where others see something useless or inferior. But he still embraces death as a part of the natural order of things and, for Christians, a homecoming of sorts. That stands in stark contrast to the attitude Hauerwas describes above, which drives a tenth of America’s GNP toward care extending life by a matter of months. Lurking beneath such a view of death is the fear that this life is all there is and that unless we violently eke out every last breath we can, we have somehow given up the most basic thing we have. At its core, it is a question of agency. Death renders us helpless, completely unable to do anything or to actively affect our surroundings. L’Arche reminds us that our worth rests somewhere outside of our own agency (our productivity, our ability to do things, our “usefulness”) – a shocking and countercultural realization.
For the Christian, death is but a chapter marker, the moment in which we pass the baton to the next generation and finish our leg of the race. L’Arche is right to give people who are developmentally disabled a fair, loving shot at the lives that God has given them, but Christians would do well to remember that when it’s our time to go, it’s our time to go. Perhaps death does make us useless in the world’s eyes, as we fear. But in death (as in the community members of L’Arche, though in a different way), we glimpse our own frailty and are confronted with a love that sees beyond it.