Tuesday, December 18, 2012

slip slidin' away...

More blogposts cooked up during a semester's teaching...

Oh the complexities of physician-assisted suicide:  check out this from, of all places, the New York Times.  h/t Mirror of Justice blog

I'll have to admit, this is an excruciatingly difficult topic to tackle...but given medical advances I bet more and more of us will wind up confronting it.  My first real taste of how this issue can elicit strong emotions:  December 1990, Lawrence County, Missouri.  Nancy Cruzan's family had won court permission to have her feeding tubes removed.  Onto my little hometown, Mt. Vernon, Missouri, descended Operation Rescue.  In addition to some hyperbolic activism at the hospital steps (folks sobbing "I'm just trying to give a dying girl a drink of water" as they clutched paper Dixie cups in their hands), approximately 25 or so were arrested.  When brought to the county jail, they all gave their names as "Nancy Cruzan."  Home from college, I stood on the courthouse lawn across the street, watching in bewilderment as these self-appointed liberators played their act for the national media.  Those arrested blasted the Cruzan family and the Missouri locals, i.e., those of us who actually lived there, for our callous indifference to human life.  Talk about alienation.  The day after Christmas, Ms. Cruzan died and with her passing the media crush passed onto its next target/victim/recipient.

Not the first time nor the last when outsiders come to a small town, announce they're here to help, and then proceed to insult everyone.  When this happens in other parts of the world, it's called "colonialism."  When it happens in the Ozarks, it's called social progress. And they wonder where I got my cynicism from...

The ripple-effect of that event shaped my understanding of both euthanasia and the broader umbrella that is Catholic social teaching.  First, I admittedly confused Operation Rescue as representative of all Christian pro-life groups.  Now even OR distances itself from Randall Terry, one of the OR leaders who came to town in 1990.  Second, my thinking about abortion's legitimacy came about not through witnessing public activism but through reading--in this case some well reasoned arguments by, among others, Hadley Arkes at First Things.  That reading led me back to the Church's writings (I know, I know--I should've started there) and the reality of human life's intrinsic dignity.  Back in 1990 I supported both abortion and euthanasia.  Now, neither. I understand the pragmatic arguments given in support of both practices.  After all, I teach ethics classes to undergraduates, folks. However, the Church stresses that life questions are no place to fall back on the merely practical.  (If for no other reason, I stress to the students, this is where Kant had a good point: act in a way you'd allow to be universalized.  Permit violations of human dignity and eventually somebody will violate your dignity, i.e. KILL YOU.) 

In like fashion, the constant push--usually delivered in a morally superior tone that death-dealing practices like abortion and euthanasia are 'good for you'--for abortion and euthanasia appear as yet two more saccharine substitutes that offer only temporary satisfaction.  Following the death of somebody else (rarely do we fully consider the ramifications for our own lives) by abortion or euthanasia we tell ourselves we're all better off:  both the living and the dead.  (On this note, again, teaching undergraduates is quite revealing;  at least once a semester a wave of papers comes in stating, without a shred of irony or conscientiousness, that abortion is the best option "for both mother and child".)  Just like we don't like hear that "diet and exercise are good for you" but deep down we understand its truth, we also don't like hear--but deep down know the truth--that abortion and euthanasia end innocent, vulnerable lives and thus violate human dignity.  Those practices are like the fat-free chocolate cakes made popular in the mid-1990s;  we consumed even more than before because we wanted desperately to believe that we could gorge without consequence.

the best among us

Getting back to older posts left incomplete as the semester ended...

Four years ago last months (November 30) Bill Placher died suddenly in Minnesota.

In some ways it was surely just another tragic, unexpected death.  Bill was sixty and there was, apparently, some family history of heart problems.  Heart disease remains the nation's leading cause of death, killing more than half a million Americans each year. 

Every human death is a cause for sadness. Among those who knew Bill, though, his loss tore deeply into the fabric of their lives.  Nowhere was this more true than those of us who, like Bill, graduated from Wabash College.  A small (900 students), all-male liberal arts college in west-central Indiana, Wabash defies casual description.  God knows, though, how people have tried.  The students are "cavemen" or "Wallies."  Faculty there routinely bemoan either the all-male student body or the students' apparent lack of concern for diversity and difference of opinion or, most usually, both.  The all-male environment creates a myriad of unique situations:  single-sex classrooms, living units, and, more often than students want to admit, parties.  Wabash students and alumni are well-known for their pride in their school as well as their willingness to address--in quite specific and shocking details--its problems. 

Amid it all stood Bill Placher, class of 1970.  He returned to teach at Wabash after doctoral studies at Yale University with George Lindbeck, David Lindsey, and Hans Frei (who had taught at Wabash during the 1950s).  In a college known for its great teachers, Bill moved about in rarefied air.  He was, one "Rate My Professor.com" evaluation stated, "simply THE MAN."  Most Wabash men major in the real world disciplines like Biology, Chemistry, or Economics;  fields that can get you a lucrative career.  Those students often considered a Placher class just as required as Physical Chemistry II or Macroeconomics.  Others, though, basically majored in Placher classes.  His offering the course indicated it was required material:  Christian Theology, Augustine, Aquinas, Modern Philosophy, whatever.  Bill's teaching skills matched his writing, which made understandable the complex and initially confusing.  No matter the reading--Wittgenstein, Plato, Karl Barth, feminism (which he insisted we read--lots of funny stories of his leading a room full of 19 year boys/men through a detailed reading of The Color Purple or a passage by Mary Daly)--if you had questions entering the class, they'd be answered clearly when you left.

 Bill knew the College's history (starting with its origins in Presbyterian mission work) and appreciated its potential precisely as an all-male college in the small-town Midwest.  To me, at least, it seemed that Wabash embodied, in all its limits, fallibility and human-ness, the mustard seed parable in Mark's Gospel.  From small, humble origins great things could come.  Thus Bill not only inspired and supported the students but his faculty colleagues, too.  When he spoke, it was an *event* on campus.  E.g., see here.  His student and colleague, Steve Webb, offered this assessment of Bill's theological legacy just after Bill's death. 

At his funeral the congregation, at Bill's request, this hymn. Also at his request, it was sung briskly.  More than the words spoken, I've always treasured that last request.  The Christian life should a celebration, sung briskly and joyfully, of this life but always with an eye for the life that is to come.  Bill taught us this and lived it himself.  He was, humbly, a great man and he now rests, as Steve wrote, in the arms of God. 

out on a limb

After the semester's conclusion Spiritual Diabetes has returned.  Lots to discuss...

I'll tackle the Sandy Hill elementary school shootings first. There are several posts to follow, but first things first.

28 people dead and, as several folks have observed, it now seems so ordinary:  young male, loner, has legal access to firearms (in this case, including an assault rifle), unspeakable carnage, suicide-at-scene.

But this time:  20 children, ages 6 & 7, killed.  Not just shot, but each shot multiple times.  And, apparently, it could've been worse.  See the Neo-Neocon's assessment for this.

Truth be told, such scenes shouldn't "seem ordinary" -- multiple shooting deaths have become expected?  Still, the deaths of children shock even the most hardened.  Just off the cuff recall the 1995 image of the Oklahoma City firefighter cradling a dead infant after the federal building bombing or the several scenes of U.S. military men and women working with children in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

And now, the deluge.  There are so many blog posts asking why?:  here, here, here, and here are four good ones.  The expected call for greater gun control, though, has gone off the rails.  Thank God there's more reasoned discussion concerning the assessment of mental disability with regard to public safety.  Even the entertainment industry has, at least momentarily, pondered its own role in such tragedies.  One of the reasons why Spiritual Diabetes exists at all is, at times like this, to avoid  fueling the usual fires of, well, the super-sweet but un-nutritional intellectual and spiritual arguments we usually feed ourselves.

With that in mind, we're going rogue with this contribution:  zombie apocalypse.  Hear me out.  My students (mostly the usual undergraduate demographic, ages 18-24) love zombie jokes, movies, Facebook memes, and attire.  Mindless zombies running around with no goal other than DEATH.  (Just whose  death we'll get to shortly.)  You don't need two degrees in film studies to understand the genre's popularity. With movies ranging from Dawn of the Dead (which starts with the incomparable Johnny Cash singing "There's a Man going 'round") to Cloverfield (where unnamed space aliens become the zombies) to more realistic horrors like Contagion (wherein a lightning-fast epidemic utterly unravels the social fabric as its cure eludes the experts) we've become accustomed to, and perhaps even expect, death's sudden, faceless, single-minded presence in our midst. So the inevitable cry "WHY?" gets stifled because something's still out there, seeking only our death.

We entertain ourselves with a genre that celebrates random death and underlines Hobbes' "state of nature" that deep down we're really nothing but senseless, raging animals. In Dawn of the Dead the zombies win!  In  The Road the father and son wander across a post-apocalypse continent teeming with lawless cannibals.  In Contagion the disease is heroically cured but life doesn't go back to 'normal'; garbage lines the street, upscale neighborhoods have been ransacked, sports stadiums have become vaccination centers.

At some point somebody will argue, if they haven't already, that zombie movies are one more attempt to wrestle with the awareness of our own finitude.  We know we're all going to die, but that doesn't help when facing the fact of TWENTY dead first-graders.  A movie genre where senseless carnage wears the costume of mindless death helps elide the pain. 

Back to the students and the t-shirts:  humor about tripping our friends and zombies liking fast food help, too.  Or, the film genre tells us, we'd like to think so.

NOW I AM *NOT* saying the shooter Adam Lansa, any other shooter at similar mass-killings, or anybody with Asperger's or autism is a "zombie."  Not analogy, not a metaphor, zilch.  I am not making those associations.  REPEAT: I am not making that connection.

But I think that we, in our discussions in the aftermath of such tragedies, do just that. Notice the photos of Adam Lansa and attend to the descriptions of him as well as other mass-killing shooters:  inability to feel pain, vacant looks, difference...and the family members' pleas for understanding.  We have an entertainment genre--fueled by our own choices--that tells us that that's ultimately what we really are:  either the zombies that mindlessly feed on the living or the living who can't escape the inevitability of becoming zombie food.

It is telling that in all these science-fiction/zombie apocalypse films there's a "saving remnant" -- some little shred of humanity makes it out alive, at least for the time being.  We'd each like to think that we'll be in that remnant, the chosen few instead of the faceless millions who've fed the zombies or become zombies ourselves.    The Old Testament prophet Amos had something to say about that presumption.  So, once again, the faith's tradition runs afoul of our cultural framing.

Forget the movies---what about our experience?  Right now the nation, and especially the grieving in Newtown, are still in that despair captured by the end of Lamentations.  As Pope Benedict XVI and Elizabeth Scalia have noted (and I'm sure Scalia would herself yield the floor to the Pope!), God sides with the suffering and grants us the room to rant and rage about tragedies like Newtown.  But the Crucifixion ended not with more death but with the Resurrection.  Obviously Newtown isn't there yet;  it's up to the rest of us to help them through.  Because at some point we all face death's onslaught.