It says “Thou shalt not murder”, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. In fact it says it twice: in Exodus 20: 13 and Deuteronomy 5: 18. So that’s settled then, isn’t it? Ah, says someone, it needs to be interpreted. It is true that the Old Testament is replete in military action and that it mandated the capital penalty for certain offences. So yes, scripture qualifies and defines itself. Then we may say that it has to be taken in context. OK: so murder with knives, swords, spears or bows and arrows is forbidden but as our century is so much more educated, civilised and technically advanced then murder with machine gun, bomb or gas is acceptable? After all you have to move with the times don’t you? As you see the appeal to modern values and methods soon breaks down, yet for some this same kind of appeal is often held dear.
It is this logic of rejection of scriptural values that can lead to some monstrous distortions. One example that struck me just now was a report that the Belgian authorities had just approved the principle that euthanasia could be administered to children of any age. WHAT?? In all seriousness it was stated that the number of instances in which this might apply was likely to be limited to a handful a year – the figure 15 has been offered, and of course that the circumstances would have to be extreme. So that’s OK then? But if children of any age can lawfully receive euthanasia with the approval of their parents, (so just who would propose child euthanasia?) then when can they also lawfully handle weapons, vote or determine their education or have sex? What about criminal responsibility or the right to enter contracts? And if they can, then can they be induced into any of these areas by adults, whether relations or not, whether in school or not? And to say that the laws under which the euthanasia of children is permitted is surrounded by safeguards is fine – until those same safeguards are progressively reinterpreted, eroded, and redefined until they cease to have any meaning at all. It can be done by court decisions in defining or redefining terms or limitations or safeguards, by administrators issuing new sets of regulations, or of course by wholly new legislation to “update and modernise” the original provisions.
And this is especially true when the matter becomes the subject of more general discussion, when dramas are produced which promote the “other point of view” using extreme scenarios with great sympathy and of course in “good taste” or when it becomes fashionable and radical to make such proposals and when it is equally reactionary to ask for clarity in them, to oppose them, or to question them in any other way.
In all these areas, it is always easy to find heart-rending examples of the brutal and uncaring administration laws and principles that are not in themselves easily contradicted but where extremes of human needs and situations are presented. These are readily probed, questioned, nuanced, and presented in the most appealing light. When the need and pain of the individual is used to set aside a moral principle the question has to be asked: well, how many people feel like this whose lives might be made more comfortable – and how many other peoples’ lives might be distorted, ruined or destroyed by the same provisions? And how do you measure these magnitudes in either direction? The burden of proof in the argument for change must be on those who promote the change or innovation, and not on those who are not convinced by any case made in its support.
I cannot say that I am shocked by the Belgian decision, for they are likely only to be following the kind of logic that has led to our own innovations in marriage, divorce and abortion. But I think that the methods and arguments that have led them to this – and which may equally lead us to the same conclusions – demand to be examined.
Perhaps we need to revisit some of our more accommodating assumptions and positions with greater prayer and discernment than self-righteous indignation. Perhaps this Lent we might also spend time looking at our own ways of evaluating need and responding to it.
Blessings to you all this Lent,