Saturday, March 31, 2012

Love and Death

In today’s New York Times Susan Jacoby writes,
        As the aging baby boom generation places unprecedented demands on the health care system, there is little ordinary citizens can do — witness the tortuous arguments in the Supreme Court this week over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act — to influence either the cost or the quality of the treatment they receive. However, end-of-life planning is one of the few actions within the power of individuals who wish to help themselves and their society. Too few Americans are shouldering this responsibility.
The editors could not possibly have anticipated that news of the deaths of Charles Darwin Snelling (brother of the governor of Pennsylvania) and his wife Adrienne would appear to be an accompaniment to Ms. Jacoby’s important and timely opinion piece.  Some reports have named the deaths a “murder-suicide”; and, in truth, culturally, we have no other words to use.  The Times did find a way to be more gentle
        On Thursday, months after contributing a poignant essay to The New York Times about navigating a six-decade marriage upended by his spouse’s Alzheimer’s disease, Mr. Snelling killed his wife and himself, the Snelling family said in a statement released to The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa.. They were found Thursday in their home in Lehigh County in eastern Pennsylvania, the police said. Mr. Snelling shot himself, the coroner said. The ruling on Ms. Snelling’s death was pending. Both were 81.
Does “taking responsibility for death” include killing your loved one and then committing suicide? Ms. Jacoby does not answer that question; but she does have a provocative conclusion that points toward “yes”:
        There is a clear contradiction between the value that American society places on personal choice and Americans’ reluctance to make their own decisions, insofar as possible, about the care they will receive as death nears. Obviously, no one likes to think about sickness and death. But the politicization of end-of-life planning and its entwinement with religion-based culture wars provide extra, irrational obstacles to thinking ahead when it matters most.
The Snelling family tragedy is the most recent publicized incident of murder-suicide among the elderly, and speculation about what might have led to it must not be taken personally.  The Times presented a love story, and that is the way this particular one should remain.  But because this kind of end-of-life experience is not uncommon, we can ask questions on behalf of others caught in the same situation.  Did he know that she did not want to continue the long day’s journey into night that is Alzheimer’s?  Did he then know he could not live without her?  Or was he forced to sacrifice himself to the near-sighted gods of retributive justice – both secular and religious? 

He was likely looking at the death penalty if convicted of murder in Pennsylvania.  According to his essay published by The Times in December 2011, families on both sides were a combination of New England Congregationalists and Quakers – so a liberal view of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness might be assumed.  Certainly it is no accident that his name was Charles Darwin Snelling.  At 81, with his own death far more visible in the road ahead than at any other time in his life, traditional Catholic or protestant views about sin and the sanctity of life may not have been particularly relevant.  But he was a leader in the Pennsylvania Republican party, and his brother is the governor of the State.  Perhaps that “politicization” of end-of-life issues, and their “entwinement with religion-based culture wars” called out by Susan Jacoby left him no choice.

In the Christian liturgical year, we are on the cusp of Easter.  This Sunday is Palm Sunday, which in Mark’s gospel ushers in “Holy Week,” the final week of Jesus’ life.  During that week, Jesus orchestrated two demonstrations on behalf of distributive justice-compassion, and in opposition to those near-sighted gods of retributive justice worshiped by both religion and politics.  The first – in stark contrast to the imperial “motorcade” led by Pontius Pilate – was the legendary rag-tag procession led by an improbable messiah, riding on a donkey.  The second was the deliberate disruption of Temple business.  The religious authorities were collaborators with the unjust policies of the imperial occupation.  When the Romans built the Court of the Gentiles in the Jewish Temple, and even allowed the Roman golden eagle to be mounted on the gate, it was clear to many that the religious leadership had sold out.  That’s why Jesus yells, “This house was to be a house of prayer for all people, but you have turned it into a hide-out for robbers!”

It is time for progressive-liberal spiritual leaders of all faiths to overturn the money-changers and political collaborators and stand for justice-compassion.  Engage the questions of life and death without weighing the political advantage.  Have the courage – the confidence in whatever god or spiritual universe – to create a secular humanity that loves and cares for itself.  Mr. Snelling defined his care-giving as “redemption”:
        So, here comes the redemption. It never occurred to me for a moment that it would not be my duty and my pleasure to take care of my sweetie. After all, she took care of me in every possible way she could for 55 years. The last six years have been my turn, and certainly I have had the best of the bargain.
This is the kind of choice dictated by love that can indeed redeem individual lives.  But so long as our society is immobilized by the collaboration of political systems with religious beliefs that force people into conundrums that leave no choice, there can be no redemption.  That’s why Jesus was executed by the Romans.  Whether the spirit of justice-compassion rises incarnate is up to us.

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