“The ability to keep people alive longer has created new ethical questions around deciding to die. This has, in ways, driven the conversation around euthanasia and assisted suicide.”
Paul Chamberlain spoke these words in his opening address at the Canadian Mennonite Health Assembly, which met in Waterloo in October 2015.
The annual conference, entitled “Loving life, befriending death,” addressed the theme of physician-assisted suicide (PAS), which the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled will no longer be illegal in certain situations as of February 6, 2016. The court invited federal and provincial legislation to be crafted in response.
The gathering wove together lectures about ethics, theology and biblical teaching; workshop topics ranging from ethics and policy-writing to spiritual and hands-on end-of-life care. Contemplative worship helped participants reflect on resurrection hope in Jesus that motivates Christians to live and love fully while acknowledging that death is not our final end.
In his lecture, “Weep with Those Who Weep: Suffering, Empathy and the Vital Function of Lament,” Derek Suderman encouraged healthcare providers in Christian agencies to reclaim the language of lament, as its goal is not just to complain but to call on God to re-establish shalom or holistic well-being. Using examples from Job, who faced immense suffering, Suderman, who teaches religious studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, highlighted the vital need within the Christian community for empathetic listening and weeping alongside those who lament, despite the profound discomfort it causes.
In response, a participant aptly noted, “If we say we don’t want a person to get out of life quickly [through PAS], then our task will be to stay with them slowly.”
This topic was relevant for a faith-based long-term care and retirement community in which a resident living with chronic pain and a terminal illness took a vacation to Switzerland to visit family. However, unbeknownst to the staff or the resident’s family—until he arrived—his purpose for travel was to end his life in a country with legalized physician-assisted suicide. Panel members from the staff and family shared about the impact on their lives and on the community in this situation, even while recognizing that living with chronic suffering over many years can be extremely difficult to endure by the individual, the family and the care-providing community.
Former philosophy professor Elmer Thiessen, a member of Waterloo North Mennonite Church, challenged listeners to rethink their definition of “dying with dignity,” which is often the reason cited for supporting PAS, and advocated that Christians ought to reclaim a belief in dying with dignity. Thiessen suggested that loving life means accepting that pain and suffering are part of life. Thus, there is dignity in suffering and dying itself, as our dignity comes as a gift from God as we are loved by God. His comments fit well with the conference’s theme hymn by Fred Kaan, “Today I Live,” which carried the prayer, “Lord, give me faith for living and for dying.”
The Canadian Mennonite Health Assembly intends to meet again in October 2016, in Steinbach Man., for a follow-up conference on the theme of “Being places of refuge for those who are dying,” as its members ponder where Canadian faith-based health-care organizations will be in their understanding about PAS.
Videos of some of the presentations are available here.