The Common Good

God's Politics Blog

Four Challenges for Christians After Brittany Maynard’s Death

Death never makes for easy conversation. But the choice of a 29-year-old Brittany Maynard to take her own life over the weekend has a lot of people talking. There are the sad and belligerent comments in the name of Christianity, as well as those from supporters of her decision and still others who seek to be empathetic but strongly disagree.

Nearly five years ago, I was laying in an ICU, on oxygen, catheterized, wearing a diaper, and on a constant flow of the most potent narcotics the hospital had available. I could not eat, drink, or even hold an ice cube in my mouth and was unable to get out of bed under my own power. Much of my family had gathered in the room to hear the doctor pronounce that there was nothing more they could do.

My situation was not the same as Brittany’s or any others’ with terminal cancer, but this experience left me with a heightened awareness of some areas where Christians need to do better when faced with death and pain. It’s beyond the scope of this post to lay out all of the theological and moral implications involved, let alone all of the political and legal implications, but here are four areas for thought.

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Conservative Christians Packed an Electoral Punch, but Can They Do It Again in 2016?

Conservative Christians are taking credit for the Republican sweep of the U.S. Senate and GOP victories farther down the ticket in Nov. 4's midterm elections, and they predict they will prevail again in 2016.

“This is not only the largest single constituency in the electorate, but it is larger than the African-American vote, the Hispanic vote, the union vote, and the gay vote combined,” Ralph Reed, one of the most recognized figures in conservative Christian politics, said Nov. 5 in a celebratory post-election press conference.

Reed, who chairs the Faith & Freedom Coalition, which mobilizes conservative Christian voters across the nation, said politicians in both parties ignore this constituency “at their own peril.”

Reed pointed to a poll commissioned by his group that shows that conservative Christians — Protestants and Catholics — made up 32 percent of the Republican electorate, and that they overwhelmingly voted (86 percent) for Republicans Nov. 4. These voters contributed 52 percent of the total votes received by Republicans, according to the Public Opinion Strategies survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

But some experts pointed out that little has changed in the religious electoral landscape.

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Pope Francis Suggests No-Cost Annulments in Divorce Cases

Pope Francis raised the prospect of no-cost marriage annulments on Nov. 5 after revealing he had dismissed a church official for selling annulments for thousands of dollars, which he called a “public scandal.”

The pontiff made the shocking disclosure as he was addressing canon lawyers at the Vatican for a course on marriage dissolution conducted by the Roman Rota, the church’s highest court.

“We have to be careful that the procedure does not become some kind of business,” the pope said. “There have been public scandals.”

“I had to dismiss a person from a tribunal some time ago who said: ‘Give me $10,000 and I’ll take care of both the civil and ecclesiastical procedures.’ Please, not this!”

Francis did not provide any more details about where or when the sacking occurred. He stressed the need for the church’s annulment procedures to be easier, faster and cheaper. He even suggested fees could be waived.

“When you attach economic interests to spiritual interests, it is not about God,” he said.

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Wheaton College Tackles the Death Penalty with Jesus in Mind

On Nov. 6, Wheaton, “the Harvard of Christian colleges,” is hosting a forum on the death penalty. But it’s not just any forum. It has potential to reshape the way evangelicals in America think about the topic.

In addition to Wheaton’s own ethicist Vincent Bacote and Mercer University scholar David Gushee, the panelists include Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent eight years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Also on the panel is Frank Thompson, former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary who witnessed executions. And finally, there is Gabriel Salguero, who heads up the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and is also a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, a Christian powerhouse representing 45,000 congregations from over 40 denominations.

This is big.

I’ll admit, part of me wished this monumental death penalty event was happening at my alma mater, Eastern University. After all, Eastern is well-known for its social justice edge, its progressive faculty — folks like Tony Campolo and Ron Sider. One Eastern alum, death penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson, was recently called “America’s young Nelson Mandela” by Desmond Tutu and interviewed in Time magazine and The New York Times.

After I pouted a little while, I realized the significance of this forum.

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Listening with Radical Ears: The Importance of the 2014 IPCC Climate Report

“The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes” (Matthew 13:11-15)

Humans shut their eyes to truth.

This week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the final installment of its three-part synthesis report on climate change. According to Rajendra Pachauri, the chairperson of the IPCC, this report is the “strongest, most robust, and most comprehensive analysis” to come out of the IPCC, which has been tracking climate change since 1988. Yet, there are still some who are hard of hearing.

The data that lies within the report is nothing completely new: climate change is happening, humans are responsible for climate change, and fossil fuels are severely damaging our levels of CO2. So, what is different about the newest installment of the IPCC report?

The emergence of one word: irreversible. 

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Pope Francis Has Conservatives Talking Schism. But a Split Is Easier Said Than Done

Many conservative Catholics have long viewed Pope Francis with suspicion thanks to his effort to shift the church’s focus away from a culture war agenda and toward a more welcoming approach and a greater emphasis on serving the poor.

But last month’s controversial Vatican summit on the modern family, with the push by Francis and his allies to translate that inclusive view into concrete policies on gays and divorced and remarried Catholics, for example, seems to have marked a tipping point, with some on the right raising the specter of a schism — a formal split that is viewed as the “nuclear option” for dissenters.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Catholic and a conservative, crystallized the peril in an Oct. 25 column warning the pope not to “break the church” to promote his goals, saying that if Francis continues to alienate conservative Catholics it could lead to “a real schism.”

Douthat had raised the possibility of “an outright schism” earlier this year, as well, and his warnings have been echoed by a number of other church leaders and commentators. The anxiety on the right has also drawn increasing media speculation about the possibility of conservatives splintering off.

So is a schism, with its echoes of medieval debates and heretics burning at the stake, a realistic possibility? And can an independent Catholic church be successful in the modern world?

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Vatican Ethicist: No Dignity in Brittany Maynard’s Physician-Assisted Death

The Vatican’s top ethicist condemned Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life, saying there was no dignity in her physician-assisted death.

Maynard, 29, took a lethal prescription provided by a doctor under Oregon’s death-with-dignity law. She died in her bed Nov. 1 after leaving family and friends a final farewell message. Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given only months to live.

“We don’t judge people, but the gesture in itself is to be condemned,” said Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which is responsible for ethical issues in the Catholic Church.

“Assisted suicide is an absurdity,” Carrasco de Paula told the Italian news agency ANSA. “Dignity is something different than putting an end to your own life.”

Maynard became a media sensation as a video she posted on YouTube was viewed 9.8 million times. Her death made her an appealing young face for the right-to-die movement.

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When Christian Arguments Miss the Point

Like other citizens of our free land, Christians tend to divide sharply, predictably, and with heated language.

We disagree about almost everything, from cultural norms to attitudes toward wealth and power; from personal behavior to what Jesus intended.

To judge by our blog posts, our comments, our letters to the editor, and our remarks in public, we are appalled at what other Christians believe. How can this person have that viewpoint and still call himself a Christian? Does she not know that her words heap burning coals on her own head?

In view of our fiery words, you’d think we had explored the extremes of Christian faith and were shouting across a vast, unbridgeable chasm. In fact, we differ within a narrow spectrum, like those who debate Coke vs. Pepsi.

That narrow spectrum tends to be far removed from what Jesus actually said, did and expected. We argue about things that don’t matter because we can’t stand the things that do matter. We argue about sex, for example, in order to avoid the topic Jesus actually addressed, namely, wealth and power.

And when we do address wealth and power, we tend to affirm the individual’s right to have as much as they can get, even though Jesus said no such thing.

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Elevating Our Cultural Competency: A Q&A with NPR’s Maria Hinojosa

“Behind every number, there’s a story.”

That’s what inspires Maria Hinojosa, host and executive producer of NPR’s Latino USA, to investigate the dramatic demographic changes taking place in the United States in her new PBS showAmerica by the Numbers. In a nation that will be majority non-white by 2043, Hinojosa’s storytelling focuses largely on the oft neglected experiences of immigrants and people of color.

Unafraid of what mainstream media too often neglects, Hinojosa’s America by the Numbers brings to life the tensions at the heart of a rapidly diversifying America. She examines not only the unjust treatment of underrepresented communities by the American government but also the cultural conflicts inherent within these communities. For Hinojosa, the conflicts between tradition and progress, community and individuality, white and non-white are not to be avoided, but rather spotlighted.

Last week, Sojourners chatted with Hinojosa about America by the Numbers and the role the media can play in welcoming these demographic changes. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

Last week I spent a few days in Rome with, among others, Tony Jones. As someone who hasn’t ever been to Rome, it was particularly helpful for me to have a Christian historian along. It’s easy enough, having seen one amazing display of ruins after another, or cathedral after awesome cathedral, to lose some perspective. So along the way, Tony would stop and point out the historic significance of various landmarks. Then of course, we’d go grab a bourbon and talk.

Both of us, at one point or another in the week, thought of the Monty Python scene from Life of Brian, in which the disgruntled rebels exclaim, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” So of course, some wise guy in the group starts rattling things off, like the aqueducts, roads, education, and so on.

So this led to a minor debate between Tony and me about the benefits of empire. Now, keep in mind that Tony is never one to pass up an opportunity to serve as the antagonist, but his argument as outlined in his blog post cheekily titled “In Praise of Empires,” is that it’s en vogue to trash empire, both present and past.

To put a finer point on it, we chatted about whether Constantine, the Roman emperor responsible for establishing the Nicene Creed, was an ass-hat.

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