It's no surprise, I'm sure, that I think about these things theologically. It is my primary lens. And theologically speaking, there is no dignity in death. If you've ever been around someone who is dying, then you know this. No matter how comfortable you make them, no matter how painless and peaceful the process appears, no matter how many loved ones surround them, no matter how many prayers and positive thoughts are spoken, there is no dignity in death. We know it in our gut. Quite the opposite, death is actually the sapping of dignity from our life. If given the choice, we would really prefer that we and our loved ones not die at all. But of course we know that everyone dies. The mortality rate of the human race has always been 100%. And we know that somehow this just isn't right. So to cope with the reality, we coin terms like "death with dignity". But this is really mere wordplay to soothe our troubled souls. Because there is no dignity in death. To say that there is a way to die with dignity is to completely ignore the terrible reality that is death and the wretched condition that causes it: sin. Death is the polar opposite of what it means to be a fully dignified human. How can the very thing that steals away our dignity be called "dignified"? No, to die is to be less than what God created us to be.
All the way back in Genesis, God created mankind. Fashioned from the dust of the earth and breathed into by God with the very breath of life, man and woman were created to be fully alive creatures, never to suffer and never to die. Not only that, they were created to live in a "groove". Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of such a "groove" in his work Creation and Fall. The idea is that God carved out a groove—a path and vocation for them to fit into and fulfill. For Adam, it was caring for the creation. For Eve, it was helping Adam. And when they were living in their groove, all was as it should be. There in Genesis we are given a glimpse of true humanity: to be fully human is to be fully sinless and fully alive.
Of course, you certainly know the story: A Deceiver; forbidden fruit that meets human lips; a good Word of God, ignored; fig leaves unconvincingly sewn over human shame; curses upon the entire creation. And death.
With that first sin, the creation was hurled headlong out of its groove, and ever since then we've been living (and dying) with the consequences in ways that God never intended. God's perfect world has been broken to pieces, and we can't put it back together again. But that doesn't mean we don't try.
There are two things we can do with suffering and death when we encounter them. The first option is to redefine them in order to diminish them. This might be done by looking through or behind suffering and death to see what larger meaning we can find there. What is the bright side of all of this? Maybe this death is actually a sweet and beautiful release into something better. Maybe it means my family won't have to be burdened any longer. A quick death means less suffering, after all. Perhaps death is really a blessing in disguise. Grandpa's not really gone. He's just in the "other room." While all of these sentiments sound nice, they don't really provide any lasting comfort. We try to concoct all kinds of ways to redefine suffering and death so that they don't seem so sharp, so painful, so horrendous.
I've seen some of this in the language that's being used to describe Brittany Maynard's story. There certainly is an affirmation of how terrible this situation is. She herself says that she doesn't want to die, and so doesn't see her decision as suicide. Somehow there's a recognition that this situation is "bad". But I'm afraid the solution is not actually a better answer. The decision to die before suffering can take its toll seems to miss the point. It attempts to take the truly bad news of death and turn it into the good news of a way to avoid suffering. But to opt for an early death in order to skirt suffering does not therefore change the terrible nature of death. Just because we redefine a situation to try and make it more palatable, doesn't mean that it actually is. The decision to die takes the horror of suffering and death into our own hands so that we can redefine it as good. But the fact still remains:
We will all suffer and die because we are all sinful. Taking death into our own hands doesn't change that fact.
But there is something God can do to change that. In fact, there is something God has done. This is the second option. The first option was to redefine suffering and death in order to diminish them. But when you redefine and diminish suffering, you end up redefining and diminishing the sin which is its source. That's why the second option is far more honest and hopeful, I think. It is this: to call suffering and death exactly what God calls them. To call a spade a spade. Not to sugar coat it. Not to make up excuses for death. Not to make it strangely beautiful or to hasten its arrival so as to make it somehow better. But rather to call it out for the crappy, sucky, dignity-stealing, sin-wrought monster that it is. We can even face suffering head-on without a single ounce of bravery in us. It's ok to look at suffering and be scared out of our wits, to have trepidation, uncertainty, tears, fear, and trembling. Because suffering sucks. And to redefine it as anything else is to fail to take it and our sin seriously.
This is the unique thing about the Christian faith, because the center of our entire life—and death—is nothing less than the cross of Jesus Christ. There we see this strange and humanly foolish work of God. There a king reigns not in power, but in weakness. There God shows the world love by pouring out wrath upon his only Son. There the glory of God is revealed in suffering and pain. There God takes death—your death—into his own hands. There eternal life is wrought in temporal death. There sin is atoned for and forgiven. And when sin is removed, so is the suffering and death that it brings. And in the resurrection of that same Christ, we are given a glimpse of the "life of the age to come". We are shown that, in Christ, suffering and death will not last forever. They will not have the last word. Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again.
Armed with that knowledge, we need not avoid suffering and death or redefine them. And we also need not conjure up some kind of human bravery to face them. Rather, the promise of death overturned and life restored back to Eden's glory gives us the ability to call suffering and death exactly what they are: horrible. But that same promise also gives us the ability to endure them, no matter how horrible and uncertain they may be. Christ does not promise to remove suffering from our earthly lives. But he does promise to remain present with us, even in the midst of the most terrible suffering.
You see, for the Christian, the strange thing about suffering and death is that they have this way of bringing you always back to the cross of Jesus.
I don't pretend to know a fraction of all that Brittany Maynard is enduring. I do pray that she knows Christ. Not because he makes her death beautiful. But because he has forgiven her of her sin and promises to one day raise her to life again. I wish she didn't have to endure this terrible situation. I wish none of us would have to endure the suffering that inevitably comes our way. But to wish for such things will not bring them about. No, for that we must wait on Christ. He may tarry now. Our tears may last for the night. But rest assured. His joy will come with the morning. He will return in glory to finally wipe every tear from every eye, for suffering, sin, and death will once and for all be no more. We will be in our "groove" again, fully sinless, full of dignity, and fully alive.
May that be our one and only hope in the ugly face of death.