A Community of Character at the Intersections of Life and Death

[1] As a Christian and as a Moral Theologian, I have been appalled by the Theresa Schiavo case for a number of reasons. There is no doubt that many people used this case as an opportunity to promote a particular point of view or agenda. To these ends they twisted the legal, medical, political, moral, and religious facts of the case. Important legal and political doctrines including the separation of powers, state rights, the rights of patients, the respect for the rule of law, and the autonomy of the judiciary were all challenged or jettisoned in the heat of the moment. Religiously, basic Christian ideas such as the respect for persons, compassion, temperance, and justice appeared to be distorted in defense of an irrational dogmatism. For example, I was disturbed by a million dollar offer to Michael Schiavo for divorcing his wife. Many commentators rushed to demonize this man using baseless conspiracy theories, in the process encouraging fringe characters to threaten judges, lawyers and Schiavo’s family members. I was also perturbed by proponents of passive euthanasia who arrogantly proclaimed that this woman was no longer alive, and could be allowed to die. Medically, it was curious to observe physician experts formulate opinions based on viewed video clips. Some of these people were not even neurologists; they lacked the medical credentials necessary for making commentaries of this nature. (This point appears to be moot considering the debate that is raging concerning the diagnosis of chronic vegetative states.) Likewise, much of the religious response was delegated to the usual suspects or to newcomers with little or no formal training in biomedical ethics.

[2] We cannot ignore the fact that as the case worked itself through the news cycle, it was exploited by the insatiable media conglomerates in their drive toward securing higher ratings. Objectivity and partiality were also the victims of this case. At times it was difficult to gauge media opinion since it was constantly in flux, shifting back and forth from dispassionate reporting to embarrassing pandering.

[3] The Schiavo case indeed was a tragedy. It was a sad illustration of the delicate nature of human life. In a blink of an eye a healthy woman was transformed into a medical casualty. The reality of many Americans was presented in all of its horrific possibilities; we are not prepared for death. Certainly the lack of education concerning end of life decision making protocol was uncovered and found wanting.

[4] It is at this tragic moment, that the sage witness of Christian ethics needs to be heard. Stanley Hauerwas, in his moving monograph A Community of Character, points out that stories are important for a number of reasons. Stories remind us of our traditions. Stories sustain our communities. Stories assist us in surviving tragedy and pain. Stories create a sense of belonging and a sense of dignity. In portions of this book, Hauerwas applies a communitarian virtue approach to Christian ethics based on an examination of the classic novel Watership Down. Watership Down is the wonderful story of a group of rabbits who flee their home after one of them has a vision of impending doom and destruction. Through their travels they discover the value of friendship, uncover specific leadership gifts, and develop a tight knit just community. Hauerwas tells us that the rabbit warren is transformed by their suffering, to the point of developing a distinctive ethic of life. The rabbits discover that friendship extends to other animals, peace is built on justice and truth, and compassion is the foundation of community. The author of Watership Down informs us that rabbits are not born unwanted; unwanted litters are re-absorbed into the mother’s body. Hauerwas tells us that Pippin, the smallest and weakest member of the group, is the “most crucial rabbit for the determination of character?” Hauerwas’ prophetic words are clear: A society is only as strong as its weakest members. Justice is determined by how it treats its weakest members. It is disingenuous to speak of a “culture of life” and a “presumption for life” when one does not have a consistent, seamless view of life. This means that to support life is to support social and economic justice, to promote the values of responsibility towards the less fortunate, to abandon a destructive foreign policy based on the use of force, to promote life by providing for the medical needs of millions of Americans, and to abandon a retributive practice that sacrifices the lives of countless criminals to a machinery of revenge and death.

[5] The case of Terri Schiavo is a tragedy because as a society we have grown callous to the value of life. There is no reason why her family could not care for her. There is no reason why we should not care for the least fortunate, medically speaking, by providing the means for publicly funded rehabilitative measures. This is an expensive proposition, but is it not an attempt to improve the quality of life in cases such as Terri Schiavo? There is no reason why we cannot abandon the dehumanizing medical metaphors that view lives such as Terri Schiavo’s, in terms of defective persons or vegetative entities devoid of value. To continue this path is an affront to our God given dignity as persons. We must also have a conversation among the interested ethical and religious perspectives on when it is appropriate to terminate medical care. I believe that many of the opponents of discontinuing food and hydration, in cases such as these, have not come to terms with death. As Christians we must take our teaching about death and the afterlife seriously. Death does not have the final word, and in many cases futile medical treatments are unnecessarily delaying our soul’s reunion with our Creator. Finally, as a church we must struggle with these cases and prepare our parishioners for the tough decisions that could possibly confront them in this pilgrimage we call life.

William Rodriguez

William Rodriguez is Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Bethune-Cookman University, Daytona Beach, Florida