February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
March 17, 2009
Slowly we realized the dimensions of this unknown country; it was huge and wide-open. We asked ourselves, where was this world before? Why is it so hidden? Certainly, there are people with disabilities around. But what does society do with such people and their families? We realized that the citizens of this land are ignored, institutionalized, or abandoned to public charity.
We also noticed, with horror, that influential ethical philosophers have proposed that disabled people are not even persons, that they do not have the same rights as other people. These philosophers even argue that because the quality of life of people with special needs—children like our daughter, elderly who cannot work, quadriplegics, fetuses with health or mental problems, et cetera—does not meet particular criteria, their lives could (and even should) be terminated. And ethicists have further complicated matters by redefining personhood, bestowing some primates, or “non-human persons,” with the same rights that “human persons” have. In some countries, legislation has even followed philosophy’s lead, legally stating that such “non-human persons” technically have more right to life than our daughter.2
This was just the beginning of our journey of unfortunate discovery. We thought that we would find compassion, understanding, empathy, help, rest, and a friendly hand in the Christian community, but instead we found the same utilitarian ethics as in the secular world. For most believers, including the majority of our family members, there were two options: Either God heals her, or God takes her away. They posed questions like: What sense does it make to live like that? Isn’t it better that God takes her away instead of letting her suffer here? Innocent questions, yes, but behind these questions we saw the same arguments that secular scholars have proposed.
The church, where supposedly the ethics of the Kingdom of God are proposed and practiced, has bought into, consciously or unconsciously, the secular ethics of the day. While the church should be the voice for the mute, eyes for the blind, feet for the lame, and hands for those who cannot produce, it has started listening to those in the church who want to eliminate these people because they cannot contribute, bring a monetary offering, or help with numerical growth. Some pastors even go as far as telling the parents of special-needs children that they are welcome in church, but without their children.
Just think for a moment—how many congregations do you know with an intentional ministry to special-needs people and their families? How many congregations include simultaneous translation for the deaf? How many Sunday schools include Down syndrome kids? Are people with disabilities intentionally included as church leaders?
The utilitarian ethics within the church became even more acute when our daughter died in January 2001. The death of a child is unnatural. It isn’t normal for parents to bury their children. Death makes us cry out loud from the deepest part of our heart, “Let your kingdom come.”
Death is our enemy. But in our case, for most of the believers who came to comfort us, our daughter’s death was the best thing that could have happened to her and to us. For those people, she was better off dead. They were not that blunt, but the message was clear: She is better off now, no more suffering, no more pain.
That was too much for us to bear. Would anyone in their right mind say that to parents who are burying their seven-year-old “normal child”? Yes, Karis lived with much pain and suffering, but how much better to search for ways to alleviate the pain and not celebrate death. Does our God not care about life, all life? Are we not supposed to promote life? So then, why did our fellow Christians keep telling us that it was better for our daughter to die?
We as the church have let the world convince us that utility is the criterion to define the value of life. If anyone, like our daughter, for example, cannot produce, her life is meaningless, worthless. The church has adopted an ethics in which utilitarian criteria are predominant.3 And in utilitarian ethics, the moral task today is to reach the highest happiness and the lowest pain. It does not matter if that implies induced death for a terminal patient or the abortion of fetuses with genetic or other malformations. Indeed, isn’t life with limitations unhappy?
The same utilitarian ethics can also be found in the church’s mission strategies and theories. Most Christian mission aims to reach the highest numbers, in the shortest time, with the lowest costs and the best profits. This definition of mission leaves out the weak, the orphan and the widow, the poor and displaced, because they bring only problems and meager offerings.
We need a new theology. For starters, we need to recover the doctrine of creation. God is the Creator of every thing and all people, including people with special needs. He is also the Sustainer of the whole universe. He is very much involved in all aspects of his creation, and he did not create us to abandon us.
It is also important to consider the doctrine of God’s providence and sovereignty. God has always had control of the universe, and in his self-revelation, he presents himself as compassionate, merciful, just, holy, eternal, and loving. He is the redeemer; he takes the initiative to reach us. His mission is to restore his rebellious creation through his transformed people, the church. God created human beings as his image-bearers, and he doesn’t measure our value based on how much we produce.
However, after sin entered the world, death became manifested in all areas of human life. We now see the effects of death in the oppression of the poor, in economical inequality, in kidnappings, unjust laws, political corruption, and violence. And my wife and I experienced the effects of death not only when our daughter passed away, but also in the uncomfortable rejection of our friends and family, including believers, that followed. In our contemporary age, people who grieve are to be left alone; we have forgotten the biblical text’s insistence that we “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15).
As a couple and as a family, we constantly grieve the death of our dreams; our daughter will never play sports, graduate, or get married; she never experienced these milestones of life. And death punched us in the gut every time someone told us, that for her, she was better off in heaven. Death was better for her.
But even though our daughter could not produce, even though she could not invest anything in the economy, she was a bearer of God’s image, and that was more than enough reason to have lived. Why has the church accepted utilitarianism without even thinking twice?
I believe we need to return to Jesus’s model of life. Jesus’s importance goes beyond soteriology. He is God’s personal revelation in human form. Jesus came to show us how to accomplish God’s mission. He was God incarnate, dwelling among us. He came to serve, to give his life for many. And Jesus constantly departed from the orthodoxy of his time. He let children come to him and included women among his disciples. He did not care about ceremonial contamination when touching the dead body of a widow’s only son and he stopped a successful meeting to heal a paralytic who came through the ceiling. He promoted life, and paradoxically, it was through his death on the cross that he conquered death to give us life eternal. Jesus is the Savior of the world and the incarnate one par excellence.
Therefore, what can we do to revert the assimilation of utilitarian ethics by the church? Our praxis has to follow Jesus’s model of promoting life. We need to learn and practice the Kingdom’s ethics. The church must be compassionate toward those in need, and it must include the poorest of the poor; the needy; the orphans, widows, and those who suffer the results of death daily. The church is called to respect the dignity of human life because we are the bearers of God’s image. We are to become the advocates of those whose basic rights are denied. The church needs to say no to the seduction of big numbers and big investments, to reject any and all systems that promote death, and to thereby return to the defense and promotion of life, all human life, in its fullness.
2. See The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, eds. Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer(New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996); Joseph Fletcher, Humanhood: Essays in Biomedical Ethics (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1979); Peter Singer, Unsanctifying Human Life: Essays on Ethics, ed. Helga Kuhse (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2002); and Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: the Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1994). Click the links to buy these books from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
3. Utilitarianism is defined as “the rightness or wrongness of an act or moral rule is solely a matter of the nonmoral good produced directly or indirectly in the consequences of that act or rule,” J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), 433. Click the link to buy this book from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.
Daniel J. Salinas
Daniel Salinas addresses whether utilitarian ethics (i.e., the moral value of something is determined by the good it produces) affect those in the church and their view toward disabilities and death.