Reading Bruce Falconer’s article in last month’s Atlantic, about Swiss suicide facilitator Ludwig Manelli, I was struck by a husband’s repeated employment of animal metaphors to justify his wife’s poisoning. “You wouldn’t leave your dog on the kitchen floor when it can’t walk, can’t eat, can’t go outside to the toilet. Transform one life form to another, and you’ve got Jenny in six months.” His wife Jenny, before he stood by as Manelli’s assistants helped kill her, had a degenerative disease. “The weakest of any herd,” he explained, “gets killed by a lion or a tiger. . .”
It’s a particular tragedy of post-modern civilization that an inability to distinguish between dogs and humans is the purview of psychopaths and philosophers. This man, of course, didn’t think his wife a dog, but his worldview doesn’t allow him to see that her life, though mired in pain and unhappiness, might have a purpose beyond its utility to her, and to him.
Those who haven’t experienced chronic, debilitating pain or incapacitation should be wary of trivializing the suffering of others. As with most inviting sins, self-murder is far easier to resist when one is not tempted to do it. The non-Christian, further, does not comprehend this as sin. His incomprehension is tragic, because man at enmity with God is man at enmity with himself. His purposes are utilitarian, his world and vision are blighted, and death is his end.
It’s hard enough for a Christian to endure great physical pain, even when his understanding is rich enough to see suffering itself as both a witness and a sign, as Alexander Schmemann writes in For the Life of the World, of coming victory, of Christ’s trampling down of death by death. It must be harder still, if not offensive, to hear a healthy person painlessly whisper that this pain is for a greater good.
Pain and suffering simply are; they are part of a broken world, and so the question for man is how he will confront them when they come to him. If Christ Himself trembled in the Garden of Gethsemane, how then can we blame the non-Christian, contorted with multiple sclerosis, when he asks for what seems a dignified release?
We cannot blame him. And though we are obligated to declare the growing industry of facilitated murder in Switzerland a wicked enterprise, we should be mindful that it is the natural, rational action of people alienated from Christ. Which means the response cannot be simply to oppose suicide and the various forms of murder dabbled in at the fringes of the medical profession. We must oppose these things, because as Christians we are called to oppose evil. But the root cause is man’s alienation from Christ, and the only solution is his reunion with Christ, which means that for every Christian effort to change a law, there should be a hundred Christian efforts to change hearts.