The second thing happened on Friday, with the ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that struck down key provisions of the criminal code and made physician-assisted suicide legal. This is being, accurately, called one of the most significant decisions of the courts in decades, and it will forever change end-of-life decisions in Canada.
How are these two debates connected? They both circle around two key questions: What is good for society? What is good for the individual, or what is good for me? Both debates are about individual choice that have repercussions for others.
In the Gospel of Mark, we also have a health story. We hear about Jesus healing Simon’s mother, as she lay in bed with a fever. And then how he cured many others in the village, as the gospel tells us, who were possessed by demons. The details of their illnesses are sparse. Certainly these acts of Jesus were regarded as miracles, which, for those effected, they absolutely were. But in our modern understanding of science, we know Demons do not possess people. Jesus was a great healer; he instilled faith and trust in God; he made people see the world differently. I have seen many examples, in my days as a pastor of the power of a faith-filled presence in someone’s life to change their being, to improve, and heal, someone’s mental and physical health. I have no doubt that, if anyone could work that kind of miracle in a person, it was Jesus.
But the second part of that text perhaps merits our more deliberate attention. Jesus takes some time in the desert to pray, where he is found by the disciples. He tells them: “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.” And he continues through Galilee, sharing the gospel, and healing the ill.
Jesus, as the Son of God, accepted his responsibility, both to teach what was right, and to serve.
And that is where we return to today. To me, the measles debate is the most frustrating. Let’s be clear: there is no science to support a fear of the measles vaccine; it has saved millions of lives, and eliminated a highly contagious and sometimes deadly illness. Measles is the only virus that can live on a surface for two hours, which is why it spreads so quickly. Babies less than a year old and pregnant women can’t get the vaccine; people with compromised immune systems may be vulnerable even if they have had it. Not all of us got the booster shot, and it’s not clear how protected we are. If we are to balance choice against responsibility, the answer is clear: Parents do have the right to choose whether to get the vaccine for their children, but that freedom ends at the door of the daycare, the school, the hospital. When we take the time to get vaccinated against potentially debilitating, infectious illness, we take responsibly to serve others by protecting the most vulnerable. In this case, we are called to set aside our individual freedom for a greater good.
But in a way, the assisted-suicide ruling is the reserve: for too long, in my opinion, the law has interfered with the individual freedom of those who are sick and wracked by pain. As a society, we have used our talents – as Jesus did – to cure disease, to improve public health. But the ability to extent life should not give us control over it. I have seen so many people suffer, and linger, long after they have made their peace with God, and would want to take a different path. But that natural path was interfered with by a medical system that says save the life by any means necessary—even if it means artificially prolonging life. I have seen this happen. I am watching it happen with my mother. Our faith is, ultimately, an individual conversation with God. The decision by the court, restores the freedom to have that conversation, and make the choice that is right for us.
This is our way: we interfere in the decisions and choices of others when it is not our business, and we stay silent when we should speak. We butt in when it causes harm, and shirk our service to others when they need it.
Those parents who have chosen not to vaccinate their children put individual rights above the public good: they have shirked their responsibility. How much better would it have been for many of the people who argued against the right for the dying to choose, to have spent their time in palliative care, focus their energy on making lives better, rather than dwelling on last moments? That is our collective responsibility: to serve others without trampling on their freedom. Like Jesus, this is what we have come to do, as gospel led people.
A third health story played out this week, one that received much less attention. In January, a middle-aged man fell down on the subway platform in Montreal, his head dangerously close to the passing train. At least 40 people saw him, and did nothing. Three metro workers walked by, perhaps one called 911. No one pulled his head away. By the time paramedics arrived, he had been struck. He died in hospital. The coroner, in a report this week, laid the blame on the public, who did nothing.
These are decisions the gospel calls us to make: when do others come before our personal freedoms? When should our individual right trump everything else? When do we have a responsibility to get involved? Where and how will we be present?
It is not so hard, in the end. Jesus calls us “to love on another.” That means we are charged to keep others safe when we can, to comfort those on a difficult journey, and to rescue those in need. To make those decisions, to make that “loving” choice, we only have to ask: What did Jesus come to do? And how might we do the same?