This month our theme is rest, and the letting go of burdens. Earlier in the month I had the pleasure of speaking to ministers from across Queensland at the Moderator’s convocation on voluntary assisted dying (VAD), connecting to themes of burden and rest when we consider the journey of dying.
With the legalisation of VAD in Queensland coming into effect at the beginning of 2023, the prospect of navigating the legal, ethical, practical, pastoral, and theological implications of VAD is certainly burdensome for many ministers, as well as the rest of us who may have loved ones who are terminally ill, or perhaps are dealing with terminal illness personally.
In reflecting theologically on the topic of VAD with ministers, I wasn’t looking to justify any particular position, official or unofficial. Part of the life of faith means coming alongside those who hold different convictions from your own at times, and it’s important to understand the range of views that might be taken even within the church.
Part of the burden of VAD includes the balancing people’s desires, hopes, grief, suffering, expectations and more (as well as those of their family, which may not be the same) together with your own personal convictions.
The reality is that the Christian scriptures do not give us a clear imperative with respect to the very particular context of VAD. Death in the ancient near east and Graeco-Roman contexts in which the scriptures were written looked very different to death today, and the attitudes of Christians toward death and dying have varied throughout history. The notion of ‘dying well’ really took hold during the Middle Ages, both as a theological understanding of the cross shifted to view Christ’s death as one we are to imitate ourselves (rather than simply accomplishing something on our behalf), and the social experience of dying shifted with reduced mortality and greater longevity.
Some of the tensions that exist as we consider and reflect are between (1) the upholding of the sanctity of life together with an acceptance of mortality and finitude, (2) the understanding of life and creation as both a gift, and a task or responsibility, (3) individual freedom and autonomy in relation to the broader communities we are part of, and (4) the place of suffering and compassion in response in how we think about dying.
These last two tensions are probably most relevant when it comes to the carrying of burdens. The desire for independence, to not be a burden to others, owes more to the influence of Western individualistic culture than a Christian ethic. An unwillingness to be dependent or to be cared for by others (or perhaps to be obligated to care for loved ones ourselves) sits in uneasy tension with a call to take care of our sick, weak, poor, and vulnerable.
This social context may be a constraint on the freedom of an individual to choose ‘voluntary’ assisted dying. People sometimes express a concern about being a ‘burden’ in the end stages of life – the challenges of being cared for or caring for the terminally ill must not be trivialised yet by grace we do not view such responsibilities as ultimately a burden.
At the same time, arguments against voluntary assisted dying (in general at least, not necessarily on a personal level) must not appeal to notions of redemptive suffering. Suffering may be redemptive if chosen, but coerced suffering under the guise of redemption is neither respectful nor compassionate toward those experiencing it. It’s not for us to decide that the suffering of another is meaningful.
The advent of VAD will surely come as a burden for many, but for others it will represent the opposite, a chance to set down a burden. I find theologian Jason Goroncy’s words reassuring: “In every experience, in every thing, in every decision, God is waiting for us. This means that death is not, in the final analysis, the contradiction of life but that it is mysteriously and inescapably bound up with the movement of life in the world and in God, for whom voluntary death is not unfamiliar territory. The Christian hope is that whatever our manner of dying, we die into God’s care, and into God’s knowing.” (Dying Without a Script, 2019).
Dr Victoria Lorrimar, Lecturer of Systematic Theology, Trinity College Queensland