From Coercion to Christmas

The recent wave of stories of sexual abuse and harassment led my residents (I teach family medicine residents) and me to a discussion of sexual ethical violations in medicine. The annals of disciplinary actions by state medical boards are filled with penalties inflicted upon physicians who have entered into sexual relationships with patients.

Why is it that in the patient-physician relationship, sexual intimacy between two (often) consenting adults is proscribed, and has been since Hippocrates prohibited it in his oath? Why, even in our sexually permissive age in which anything goes, is this still taboo?

The issue with physicians and patients — as with most of the accusations making headlines recently — is power. The patient-physician relationship is radically asymmetric with regards to power. The patient is vulnerable; the physician is not. The patient reveals dark secrets, and uncovers his or her body for examination; the physician does not. One person in the room is exposed, figuratively, and literally, and it ain’t the doctor.

It is this asymmetry, this difference in power, that makes it so difficult for an intimate relationship to be truly consenting; there is a very real danger that the less-powerful party will act from some sense of coercion, even if the coercion is unrecognized and unacknowledged. When a relationship as intimate and personal as a sexual relationship is coerced, even subtly, the potential for harm to the weaker partner is so great that the ancients, in their wisdom, forbade it, and we moderns have seen fit to respect that prohibition.

Of course it is not just patient-physician relationships that are asymmetric and thus liable to abuse. Whenever one person exploits their position of superior power over another the potential for abuse exists, such as when a person with great political power personally attacks those in positions of less power on social media. We call such abuse of power “bullying.” We rightly condemn┬ásuch abuses.

This got me to thinking about the most asymmetric relationship possible: the relationship between God and people, the Creator and the created. While there is no sense in which God could be said to abuse his power, he seems remarkably restrained in his exercise thereof. We read of times when he shows up in dazzling displays — think of the children of Israel leaving Egypt, or God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind — but more often than not he is veiled: a still small voice, a dream, a soft but persistent voice in the night that keeps calling our name.

And when God gives us the clearest revelation of who he is, he eschews any semblance of powerful exhibition, and comes as a baby. When he grow up and displays his power, it is veiled in love: he heals, he saves a wedding celebration from disgrace, but often with admonition, “Don’t tell anyone.” Even his greatest display of power — his Resurrection — was carried out in such a way that many of those nearest to him had a hard time understanding or believing it.

God is powerful, no doubt. But he rarely uses his power to overwhelm or coerce us. He seems to prefer self-giving love as his means of persuasion. We are told that someday he will come in a full demonstration of his power and glory. But for now, as we celebrate at Christmas, he comes to us as a baby. He comes to be with us, as one of us, so that he can lead us from where we are to God. Or, as an old Christian named Athanasius said, “He became as we are, that he might make us what he is.”

I’m on call for our obstetrical service this holiday. I’m going to try to let each baby I see be a reminder of how God deals with us: power that clothes itself in self-giving love.

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Henry Williams MD
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Henry Williams MD

Thank you for your lovely Christmas reflection. Visiting with us this season are my wife’s 98 year-old mother and my son with his 8 month-old baby. I’m helping change diapers for both. Celebrating with and ministering to some of these most special and vulnerable ones helps us reflect on God’s love in taking on the form of a baby and a servant in coming to us. Indeed our roles should be clothed in such humility and respect as He gave to us.
Henry Williams, M.D., FACP, M.A. (bioethics)