Some years ago I was leaving a Crematorium where I had conducted a Funeral and on the steps outside I met another priest who was, I assumed waiting for a coffin to arrive. Things were a bit delayed and so we passed the time of day. I innocently asked him who the deceased was….. At which point he began to cry. He was waiting, he told me, for the still births from the local hospital. He told me that it was standard practice at that time- since the mothers didn`t want anything to do with them- to just dispose of them. When he had heard about this he made an arrangement with the local Funeral Director that he would at least give these little bodies a dignified end.
This was and remains a very confused and emotive matter. Part of the problem it seems to me is that we have begun to see children as a right rather than a gift. The underlying assumption is that birth of children is something to be controlled and arranged so as to fit in with our ambitions and lifestyle. In short it`s all too easy for some people to regard them as akin to another commodity. I`m not joking; I`ve met bright young things who treat them as fashion accessories and we`re already beginning to see the emergence of a range of factors by which we will select the suitability or desirability of a child. Gender is the simplest one but genetic manipulation stands ready to meet consumer choice doesn`t it? And let`s be honest, it`s this that drives the abortion-on-demand culture we find ourselves in. I mean, the `disposal` of an unborn child as a mistake or an inconvenience is a wholly logical position when even here the consumerist spirit takes over.
And what`s true of the beginning of life also rears its head at its end. All of us here will know how recent generations we have moved from a position where families themselves surrounded and cared for their elderly and those with grey hairs were esteemed to a place where a more fragmented society often finds it far too inconvenient to care. Along with all of this our language is laced with sweeping judgements about whose life is `worth` living. Just how disabled do you have to be to be considered unworthy of life, I wonder? And when did we start teaching people that if they hang around too long then they`ll be a `burden`?
Again, our language masks the truth. It`s `assisted suicide` as we try to imply that it`s their decision but what we really mean is that we`ll make it easy for you to get out of the way because we`ve created a culture in which human life can be conveniently dispensed with. Please don`t misunderstand me I don`t deny how hugely difficult some of these second half of life issues are. I`m using deliberately blunt tones to point out that underlying all of this is what value we place on a human life.
Too often, it seems to me, moral debate about these things is both shallow and limited by what`s convenient. Those who sacrificially and nobly care for others may be lauded as praiseworthy but the culture does imply that they could be doing something more fulfilling doesn`t it? To cap it all, public discussion of these matters is far too often fronted by celebrities; people with minimal expertise and whose only real contributions are emotive and anecdotal.
So where can we look for guidance? Where can we go to ensure that we think clearly and as Christian people? Well I want to point us to the Creation Story- Genesis Chapter One – which we heard this morning. It was good to hear it in full like that. And the first thing I want to say is that I think it`s such a great shame that whenever this passage gets mentioned- let alone read -the default reaction is to belittle it somewhat. In other words this passage seems to be smothered by that long-running and spurious debate which assumes that this passage is an example of primitive humankind attempting to write science. Well that frankly is cheap and a rather convenient way of avoiding what is a very sophisticated piece of writing.
The best way of understanding it, to my mind is to think of the time it was written. We think it was put together during the time when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. The point is that they were surrounded by an alien culture and a whole host of religious explanations for human origins and how the world came to be. What I`m getting at is that Genesis Chapter one appears to be what we call a `polemic`; an attempt to state Israel`s understanding of human origins in the face of that alien culture. So, for instance we notice that in contrast to others Israel believes in a God who is set apart from creation; they don`t worship the creation itself. The lights which operate during day and night are just that- lights; they are not named, thereby avoiding temptations to worship them like others did.
Most significant however, is the particular and special place which is given to the creation of humankind. Our significance is that we are given dominion or stewardship over this creation and we`re created for a special relationship with God. Genesis describes it like this: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’”.
Now, this being created in the `image of God` is where we begin our consideration of all these knotty issues. Being created in the `image of God` is where we gain our understanding of humankind`s value and significance. So we can`t see ourselves as the random products of time and chance; a disposable collection of cells and all the rest. The creation story reminds us that we ARE unique and we have an equally unique calling to reflect the goodness and being of our creator. Clearly this is where we fall down on the job because it`s this capacity to properly exercise dominion and stewardship; our relationship with God and with one another which has been distorted by our self-will. This `sin`, as we call it has marred our image bearing and it`s this that Christ came to restore.
But, again my point is that this `being made in the image of God` is there to colour our contribution to these ongoing controversies about the beginnings and endings of life. So, for example, the word `dignity`, it seems to me is given a whole new emphasis when you say that the person in the sick bed before you bears the image of God. But the same happens when you look in the mirror. One of the great sicknesses of our age is lack of appropriate self-love. The command in Scripture is to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. It does seem to me that one of the reasons so many people easily succumb to the idea of assisted dying is that they have already taken the emotional cyanide pill that says that they aren`t worth much anyway.
When I was a Curate I went to hospital to visit a young woman who had just had an abortion. To get to the abortion ward I would go through the main entrance and turn right. The labour ward was on the left and as I went in to see this young woman from the labour ward on the left emerged a young couple so happy with their new arrival. I couldn`t get my mind around the utter moral confusion of a country which spends vast amounts of money on bringing young lives to birth and destroying them in equal measure. In that hospital it all depended on was whether you turned to the right or to the left. But what really gets to me is that talking with that young woman about the decision she made I discovered that her own mother had also had an abortion and had remained emotionally and spiritually scared ever since. I`ve always felt that the slogan “A woman`s right to choose” somewhat cheapens the experience which those women, even today are living with.
So I invite you to ponder on two things this morning. Firstly, I`d ask you to notice how the discussions we hear about beginnings and endings of life are characterised by language which so often trivialises, oversimplifies and deals primarily in emotion and as I say, convenience. Secondly, you may find it helpful to look behind that language which so often acts as a smokescreen and ask: “What vision of the human person is painted by this statement?” Our anchor is the dignity we are given as those created in the image and likeness of God. Anything less simply won`t do.