Dignity, Always Dignity

[World, February 18, 1995]

When Oregon passed “Measure 16” last November, it became the first state in the nation to give doctors permission to prescribe poisonous drugs in order to kill dying patients. In fact, according to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Oregon is “the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize assisted suicide by popular vote.” Oregon was a well-chosen test site; it has the lowest church attendance in the nation, and pro-euthanasia messages played on bias against pro-life Catholic leadership (it’s been said that “Anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the elite class.”) The lines don’t split precisely between Christians and non-believers, however. Many Christians feel an innate revulsion for legalized killing of the sick, but some do not. A recent letter in our Mailbag column proclaimed, “Thank God for Dr. Kevorkian.” It’s human nature to feel panic at the thought of dying in misery, and to long to circumvent the possibility.

There are really two concerns here. One is the awful spectre of dying out-of-control, of ending one’s days voiceless, drooling, in a humiliating tableau of tubes and and soiled sheets. No one wants to go through such embarassment. We want to die with dignity.

The other fear is of dying in someone else’s control, of missing God’s timing and ending up a cadaver irrigated by pumps, while loved ones battle a faceless bureaucracy. This is a reasonable desire for a natural death, much like a pregnant woman’s desire for a natural birth. The difficulty is that the horror stories often begin with a gamble that intervention would bring healing, and only if one could predict the future would these decisions be easy. In these tough situations it’s ethical to either accept or refuse treatment, but not to refuse care: basic food and water. Nor is it right to kill swiftly rather than take a chance on “undignified” death.

The more I thought about these fears, the more the word “dignity” began to grate. A few years ago, Brown University professor Felicia Ackerman published an essay titled “No Thanks, I Don’t Want to Die with Dignity.” In it Ackerman questioned several popular “lines” about death, finding in the noble protestations (e.g., “I fear being a burden to my loved ones”) a subtle pressure on the dying to, well, lie down and die. She concludes, “The notion that terminally ill people should be…ready to bow out gracefully as soon as they become burdensome, hardly serves their interests. It serves the interests of those who want sick people to be as little trouble and expense as possible.”

About the D word she says, “Personally, I’ve always considered dignified people stuffed shirts. So I can’t help doubting that a fatal illness would suddenly make me find dignity more precious than life.”

A Christian worldview can build on this perception. Where indeed did we get the idea that dignity is better than life? Were we ever promised in Scripture that we can die, or do anything else, with dignity? Is God so mindful of our pride?

Clining to rags of dignity can make us look more absurd. In “Singin’ in the Rain,” Gene Kelly intones grandly, “I’ve had one motto which I’ve always lived by: ‘Dignity, always dignity.’” While his character recounts the fictitious story of a noble career in fine theatre, the viewer sees reality: Kelly in a checked suit, strumming a ukelele and taking pratfalls. The joke’s on him: behind the posturing, he’s not dignified at all.

In the Lord’s plan, the joke could be on us. How dignified did Ezekiel look eating a scroll? Was Hosea’s dignity enhanced by being wed to a prostitute? A friend once contrasted his current trials with that of a different prophet: “Well, the Lord made Isaiah go naked for three years. I’m grateful at least that he hasn’t made me do that.” “Believe me,” I agreed, “a lot of us are grateful.”

We want our deaths to be free from pain, mess, embarassment. But there is a long Christian tradition of “holy death,” that is, of allowing even a hard death to be a witness to God’s grace. We’re nowhere invited to ring down the curtain early to preserve our pride. How dignified did Jesus look on the way to the Cross? Spattered with blood and spit, despised and rejected, he carried his own instrument of torture up a hill. Was this a death with dignity?

Ironically, it was. The Latin root for dignity is dignus, which means worthy. The most worthy death in history was shorn of all dignity. Yet it was the death that transformed death, changing it from a wall to a door.

It hardly matters if we cross that door with stately serenity, or get shoved through in a buffoonish pratfall. There are many things more to be feared in life—sin, for example—than a foolish death. Getting through that door is the thing; we do so trusting in his dignus, not our own.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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