Dutch politicians are considering changing euthanasia laws so that healthy people can die whenever they want. In an interview, the leader of the political party that introduced the bill said, “You didn’t ask to be brought into the world,” and explained that his party’s goal is to make euthanasia freely available to all.
The idea that death is a human right is gaining traction in the U.S., too. In fact, arguments that we should kill terminally ill infants are respectable enough for the New York Times.
Christians realize that the way a culture looks at death is inextricably tied to the way it sees life. How do we talk to our neighbors about eternal life when we are living in a culture of death?
Odd as it may sound, I think it is helpful to consider the contrast between the deaths that are promoted today by political activists and the deaths that were admired throughout most of the history of our country. That’s because interest in death is nothing new—it’s simply the kind of death we admire that has changed.
In The Past, Americans Looked Up To Heroes And Martyrs
In 1911, Robert F. Scott and Roald Amundsen set out to lead rival expeditions in a race to the South Pole. Amundsen reached the destination first and returned safely home. In contrast, Scott and his four companions died. Guess which leader immediately became a famous, romanticized figure in the English-speaking world? It wasn’t just that Scott was English, but that the English-speaking world liked people who died in pursuit of noble goals.
After all, generations of British and American schoolchildren were reared on stories of the Spartans at Thermopylae, Joan of Arc, Nathaniel Hale, and, later, Martin Luther King Jr. Children were expected to learn virtue by seeing that courage transcends death, and that material prosperity is a poor fig in comparison to patriotism, faith, and self-sacrifice.
Yes, those educators of the nineteenth and early twentiety centuries sometimes demonstrated a weakness for sappy moralism. At the same time, however, they understood that the way we view death shapes the way we view life.
Those schoolchildren who read about Nathaniel Hale lived in an era in which disease, infection, and accidents took a higher toll than today. Death was not exotic. Yet society reached for a way to understand death that would demonstrate the meaning of life. They wanted death to define the question of what makes a good life. They found that answer in the idea that spiritual things—virtue, truth, God, and salvation—matter more than anything else. They found the answer in loving life but loving eternity more.
What Heroes Do We Admire Most Today?
The stories we tell are a little different these days. Our soldiers still die, of course. Our global neighbors are still martyred for their faith. But those headlines don’t go viral. Nowadays, a different kind of death has taken the spotlight as the ultimate argument.
The deaths that hold the public imagination are self-inflicted. Take the case of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old cancer patient who chose to take advantage of Oregon’s assisted suicide laws, and became a household name (as an example, apparently over 16 million unique visitors read her story on one website alone) and is treated as a heroic icon for the “right-to-die” movement.
Or take the fear that gay or transgender individuals will become suicidal if their identities are not embraced by society. The idea that they might choose to die is treated as social proof that what they ask is morally right.
Terrorists who kill themselves in order to commit mass murder are condemned as misguided or even evil, but they have the power to dominate imaginations and to generate pervasive headlines. They are far more famous than their victims.
This idea that killing oneself is a source of power and strength has even been translated into popular entertainment. The YA novel and Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” centers around the story of a teenager who has committed suicide, and could easily communicate the idea that the character’s death is what allows her to achieve the attention, understanding, and revenge she wanted but couldn’t get in life.
Our Fascination With Self-Inflicted Death
There is a devastating difference between admiring someone who died at the stake for her faith vs. someone who died in order to remain in control of her fate. Our fascination with self-inflicted deaths is heavily tied to our view of what makes for a good story (and therefore a good life). We have accepted the idea that all good narratives involve a narrow definition of what it means to be a protagonist.
Today’s stories teach us that we must be the gods of our fate. Old-fashioned martyrs were once seen as strong because even death could not defeat their convictions. Nowadays, if we want to be a protagonist, we must follow the established arc: we must summon a sufficiently immense quantity of self-belief, then leap into conflict and triumph. Often physical battle is used as a simplified shorthand for this concept—even the modern manifestation of Lewis Carol’s Alice must don armor and use a sword against the Jabberwocky. If all else fails, the enemy we slay can be our own body.
The moral imperative to guide our own fate means that, most of all, we must never continue to experience suffering we cannot control. Ultimately, life is worthwhile only within the narrow parameters of our own happiness and success. This sad way to look at the world is also an opportunity.
We can talk to our neighbors about the differences between taking life and giving it up. Admiration of suicide and murder is unnatural. It isn’t entirely new—plenty of decadent cultures in the past also developed cultures of death—but it is still an aberration against natural law. In contrast, the sacrifice of martyrdom is something that tends to speak to even the most hardened soul. Even the bloodthirsty mobs of ancient Rome found their views of Christianity influenced by the sight of Christian martyrs in the arena.
The thing is, a willingness to give up life in all its sweetness is about far more than death. It is a witness that life is defined by something much bigger than ourselves or our circumstances. It is a witness to hope in eternal life. It is something our neighbors need to hear about.