Ethical Hysteria

This is a blog that I had no desire to write, and concerns a matter for which I have been troubled for a few days now.

I am a Hoosier, a resident (and native) of Indiana, which is a state that is either, depending on your perspective, the epicenter of common sense or a new hotbed of hatred. The week just passed was marked by the private signing of a law named “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act” in Indiana, by Governor Mike Pence. This came out of a legislative session that had, up to now, been considered rather tame and even dull to most who work within Indiana politics. The windup to this has been nothing compared to its national response, which has been abundant and vociferous.

Indiana has a sort of curious pride in its ability to be neither the first nor last to do much of anything. Hoosiers are a people who survey the passing scene, dwell on it awhile, and then decide to join when the water seems tepid enough. We continue to celebrate such things as a dessert item that can be deep fried at our State Fair, we crown a “Pork Queen” at an annual festival thirty miles north of our Capitol, and shake our head at the corruption in parts of the state while we mow our lawns and lay down fresh mulch on our flower beds every Spring, undeterred. If you move here you’ll probably receive a pie from someone, and a recommendation to the best steakhouse around. Indiana is generally a delightful, non-threatening place. One law seems to have changed some of that.

I actually have a complicated view of the legislation just passed, as many Evangelicals do. This is not especially personally commendable, as it should be no surprise; our faith inherently makes the sausage-making of legislation in a secular government complex. I own a small business; I am the president of a professional organization; I have clients and friends and colleagues that have a wide range of beliefs, life experiences, and moral positions. I can see the concerns that all sides have with the passage of this law.

What troubles me is the weight given to hysterics. And this is where we must all be troubled in the era of moral and ethical relativism. And yet it is hysteria, often promulgated by well-meaning people who are swept up in a sea of compassion, which seems to win the day. It isn’t even very good ethical relativism, where all views are to be held equal…the most valid ethical opinion is the loudest one. Perhaps it is my age or (hopefully) advancing wisdom that finds hysterical arguments so odious. I almost don’t care what position you take; I will discount it ten-fold if you resort to hysterical means to defend it. This, by the way, is not limited to any one side of most issues. People of faith are as capable of resorting to histrionics as anyone else.

I love to come to conclusions, and, sadly, my temperament must be satisfied with more musings than solutions this time. As those who seek to follow Christ, in His difficult teachings and astonishing sacrifice for those who didn’t deserve it, do we look at (and influence!) legislation, bad or good, and social evolution, similarly, with a winsome response, or a hysterical one? In an era of 24-7 news cycles and social media, where “he (or she) with the most ‘likes’ triumphs,” is hysteria the way to win? My darker angels are rather inclined to think that it is. What is maddening to me is how often hysteria is passed off as enlightenment. And this should continue to worry us in Bioethics because the “optics” and the “narrative” that surround an issue are what rule the argument. Can we continue to compete in the arena of ideas with elegant arguments but restrained by that darn Christian civility?

In fact we must. The price to win some battles with bluster is too great, for it may damage the cause of the very Gospel we seek to advance. We know that. Jeremiah wrote to the exiles held captive in Babylon that they should “pray for the welfare of the city” where they lived, for “in its welfare you will find your own welfare.” For each People spread that glorifies the values of the Hemlock Society, that find their object lesson in Brittany Maynard, a quiet Kara Tippets response is less flashy but exactly right. If “our side” on this issue eventually loses, I will find such means the most affirming way to have lost. Let us be wise in how we manage the optics and the narrative, to be certain, but in that process, defend our ethics in a way that is consistent with them.

I’ve not given my position on the law because, frankly, I consider it entirely irrelevant to the big picture of God’s ultimate plan, what the late Dallas Willard called the “Divine Conspiracy.” In six weeks I will travel with a team of eight to meet with fellow believers in war-torn Ukraine. One of them is a pastor from Donestk whose church was burned to the ground by rebels backed by a Russian madman who wishes to see the nation of Ukraine crushed into subservience, and who have already killed thousands and driven the church there into a Soviet-style bunker mentality. This pastor is now ministering to other refugees in Kiev. I do not expect to ask for their prayers for me to attain either greater religious liberty or freedom from persecution from anyone. The Ukrainian Christians have a perspective that I cannot fathom. My Ukrainian brothers and sisters are not hysterical; they are surviving. No legislation in America or anywhere else will stop God’s relentless conspiracy to make right that which was wrong. I hope many of His people will ultimately be marked by diligence and faithfulness, and less by how hysterically they defended our ethics in His name.

Ukrainian Bioethics

I returned from Kyiv, Ukraine, last week as part of a team that is working to strengthen a partnership with a Christian seminary there. As we met with various program heads within the school, I asked a few questions about how ethics are taught, and what bioethical issues the Ukrainian people face. Some of the answers were surprising.

Ukraine, of course, is the long-suffering nation to the west of Russia, most often remembered as the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union, as the nation where millions starved to death in Stalin’s effort to break the farmers that resisted collectivization, as a nation where much of the fighting—and death—from World War II occurred, and as the location of the horrific Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, some seventy miles north of Kyiv. Ukrainians know what it means to endure; their national anthem is “Ukraine Is Not Yet Dead.” Ukraine’s history has witnessed many affronts to human dignity, perhaps one most chillingly on display at the “Museum of the Great Patriotic War” (a.k.a., World War II) where gloves made of human skin and a bar of soap made from human fat show just what human beings are capable of doing to each other. The Ukrainian people were saved from the atrocities of the Nazis to be dominated by the Soviets, exchanging one form of tyranny for another.

Years of communist rule still leave their mark on Ukraine. Something especially notable when out and about in Kyiv is the utter absence of physically-challenged people, the handicapped, on the city’s streets. It isn’t that they don’t exist. But communism in the Soviet Union served to create an “ideal society,” free of suffering and disability, filled with “perfect” people. In reality, this meant warehousing the mentally and physically-handicapped—and orphans—into hidden-away institutions. This mindset has been slow to change. Handicapped access is limited, to be charitable, and it is hard to imagine that a shopping trip would be anything but excruciating for anyone in a wheelchair. As much as I groan at some of the excesses, as I perceive them, in our “Americans with Disabilities” Act, I’ll probably now more gladly accept its quirks and demands as a way of affirming the dignity of those who suffer challenges I have yet to face in my own life.

It is easy to criticize the post-Soviet outlook, this vestigial communist view of human beings, as an American. But how much do we sanitize the pursuit of perfection here? What are enhancement technologies but a reflection that we have a need to be free of problems, to be our “best selves?” We tuck away our dying elders in nursing homes so that the inevitability of decline and death don’t confront our pursuit of happiness.

A member of our team wryly reflected that, in Ukraine, their faces are from the West but their minds are from the East. As I mentally checked off the list of bioethical issues we face in the West—challenges with assisted reproductive technologies and pre-implantation genetic testing, with use of technologies for human enhancement, and with limitation of burdensome treatment at the end of life—it became clear in discussing bioethics with the seminary faculty in Kyiv that most of these issues are completely off the radar of the vast majority of Ukrainians. Abortion is still hideously common as a method of birth control in Ukraine, as it is in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. But the idea that we would use medicine to end life with physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia, or spend scandalous amounts of financial treasure on cheating the aging and dying process, seem arcane in Ukraine. One director even noted that the people of his country don’t have time to be depressed (even as they have faced generations of addictions) because they are too busy just surviving. A study in contrasts, this nation, where children are forgotten in orphanages and old women, the babushkas, may beg for money to supplement their meager pensions, but where children are bundled for warmth with the smallest hint of chilly air and people give up their seats on crowded buses for the elderly and for women with small children. These are a people acquainted with suffering and sorrow, and they have a certain respect for those who have suffered for more years than most (the elderly) and for those who hold the eternal promise of a better future (the children). A rather elegant ethic there: respect and promise.

Wiser minds than mine have delved into the mystery that, within the crucible of suffering, we may be best equipped to find evidence of grace in daily life. It was a visit to a church in Kyiv that I could best see this illustrated. There is, in Ukraine, a national church that had been suppressed, harassed, and persecuted at every turn, one that has survived communism and the economic anarchy that followed, and today sends workers into other former Soviet republics. It is, in fact, a joyful and beautiful place. It is a church that is ministering to orphans and the mentally and physically handicapped, bringing them out of the shadows to which communism relegated them. Ukrainian bioethics is more, forgive the awful word here, “primitive” in a sense, because the technologies that are such qualified blessings in the West have yet to meet this part of the world. But it is the church that is leading the way toward negotiating the ethical issues in a society in transition and embracing the notion of human dignity, a church that just may impact the course of a nation that is, indeed, not yet dead.