Monday, April 16, 2007

Synod Resolutions: The Controversial

Today I begin blogging through the resolutions to be presented at the 26th General Synod of the United Church of Christ.

This category is meant for those resolutions that may cause the biggest rifts among church members.

This year, those resolutions are A Reaffirmation of Marriage Based on the Word of God, A Reaffirmation of the Historical and Ecumenical Christian Perspective on Marriage, and Legalization of Physician Aid in Dying.

In the case of the first two, I'll focus on the second. They'll be combined in committee anyway. And I'm not going to spend a lot of time on it, because I'm bored with it. Children are starving in Somalia and people would rather spend their time on this.

First, a word on the scriptures this resolution uses. Particularly for opponents of same-sex marriage, the issue is how the Bible is authoritative. This resolution acknowledges that, and I agree. Accusations fly over this issue more about whether people are correctly following "what the Bible says," and in more extreme witch-hunting cases, whether someone is a Christian or not.

As such, we hear the familiar argument that the Bible prescribes marriage to be between "one man and one woman." At best, this model is most widely described in scripture. Genesis 2 shows the man and woman becoming partners, and yet there is little indication that this was meant to be a prescriptive text. It describes marriage between the man and the woman, but does not necessarily prescribe it as the only valid form. It does, however, communicate the bond that is formed once a man and woman become married, which Jesus echoes in the Gospels.

The resolution acknowledges the presence of polygymy in the Bible (frequently cited in opposition to the claim that there is only one Biblical model of marriage), but includes a few weak texts that supposedly state that God does not approve of the practice. These texts are prescriptive for royal and religious figures, and the one text from Malachi doesn't even apply. The Deuteronomy text is prescriptive for kings in particular rather than the general populace, and we can see how closely David and Solomon followed it. Nowhere is there condemnation for their polygymy, or advice that they drop all but one wife, or punishment for taking more than one wife. Surely these two, lifted up as the two greatest kings of Israel, would have faced some sort of backlash for it. David gets in trouble for adultery and murder, not polygymy. Again, this model is described, but it is not regulated or prescribed. The only time any regulation of polygymy seems to be enforced is in the pastoral letters where bishops and elders are told to only have one wife. Okay, what about everyone else? The Bible simply does not provide the categorical, be-all, end-all prescription for one single form of marriage to be observed for all time. That, or Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and anyone not called to be a bishop or elder all get free passes.

These observations are not to encourage an "anything goes" approach to marriage. I am in support of a loving, consenting, monogomous relationship between two adult human beings. I simply wanted to point out that the Biblical model of "one man and one woman" is not as much of a slam dunk as many may believe.

Somalian children, people. Somalian children.

All in all, I see a difference in reaction between what the passing of the Equal Marriage resolution last Synod and the possible failing of these two resolutions may cause at the local level. The former was an active affirmation, the latter would be a passive affirmation at best. Whatever stir the latter may cause would probably be more because of the momentum of the former.

The other resolution in this category deals with physician aid in dying. The short version is that I find this resolution very well-written. I'll lift up three things.

First, when I was a hospital chaplain, there was one wing of the hospital that we were told not to concern ourselves with except by special referral because it was considered a different hospital. This "hospital-within-a-hospital" was called Select Specialty, for patients that required a specialized level of care. When I did get called to this wing, I found that "specialized level of care" really translated to "hooked up to more machines and otherwise oblivious to their surroundings." I remember the feeling of death when I walked onto the unit and into my patient's room. They were alive, sure, but by extreme artificial means. Would they ever wake up, express their own needs, approach any degree of normal competency, recognition, and interaction? The chances seemed slim.

Second, I don't like crediting John Shelby Spong with a whole lot, but I liked the quote included in this resolution:

If I have a medically confirmed incurable disease, and can bear the pain of that sickness only by being placed in a kind of twilight zone, where I neither recognize the sweet smile of my wife nor respond to the touch of her hand, do I not have the ethical right to end my life with medical assistance?

In other words, would someone in that "twilight zone" state be fully alive? Are the only choices a life of severe pain or a life where one is basically kept unconscious to endure the pain? It seems to me that death would be an act of mercy, perhaps even love, if these are the only other options. Also note the phrase "medically confirmed incurable." I think that sometimes people oppose resolutions like this because they paint pictures for themselves of children and grandchildren on a whim rushing to nursing homes to inject morphine into their relatives (never mind that many nursing homes have abysmal standards of a pastor, I've seen and smelled some of them). Physician aid in dying is not meant for "inconvenience" sorts of is for those whose health has reached a point that makes any semblance of normal living impossible.

Finally, the resolution laments the frequent inclusion of the word "suicide" in these discussions, observing that suicide is frequently a tragic and violent ending of life that could have continued with appropriate care and renewed hope. Meanwhile, physician aid in dying is construed as a more careful, "safeguarded" act for a person whose life has already taken its final turn. Again, the operative theological concepts at work here are mercy and love. Read this resolution. It's very well-done.

That's it for The Controversial. Further discussion, of course, is invited in the comments. Just keep it civil.