C. Ben Mitchell

About C. Ben Mitchell

C. Ben Mitchell holds the Graves Chair of Moral Philosophy at Union University. He received the PhD in philosophy with a concentration in medical ethics from the University of Tennessee, with additional study at Oxford University. Mitchell is the editor of Ethics & Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics.

Surprise at Newtown’s Massacre Rests on a Faulty Anthropology

Despite the holiday season, the Newtown school killings brought a nation to its knees in shock and sadness. Dear little ones lost their lives in a senseless act of mass homicide. Only the most callous individual would not grieve over the loss of life, the heartbreak the parents feel, and the stolen potential of those children who were murdered.

Over time, however, we may be able to see through our collective grief and realize that events like Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown really should not surprise us at all. In fact, given the reality of the human condition, we should be shocked that there is not more violence than there is.

The biblical story teaches us and our experience confirms that human beings are tragically flawed creatures who are capable of the most horrendous evil.  As the weeping prophet, Jeremiah said long ago, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV). A cursory tour of recent history—Dachau, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Gulags, and Rwanda—is a breathtaking tale of the misery that can be inflicted at the hands of wicked men. Yet we stubbornly persist in the illusion that human beings are essentially good on the inside.

Our 21st century anthropology—our doctrine of human nature—has gone maudlin and romantic. The notion that human beings are essentially well-meaning and altruistic is a pipe dream I hope we will soon get over. The reality is that there is enough sin in each human heart to start another hell every day. We resemble more and more the Greek culture about whom the apostle Paul wrote: “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:28-31).

So the perennial question isn’t really, “why do bad things happen to good people?” but “why do good things happen to bad people?”  Given the nature of human depravity, the state of contemporary culture, and our moral amnesia, it’s a wonder that we enjoy any beauty, goodness, and truth at all.

What ought to surprise us, therefore,  is not human evil, but that human kindness, generosity, and love are so lasting, durable, and ubiquitous in a world fixed on an increasingly tilted moral axis. After all, in an age of self-indulgent narcissism what meaningful impediments are left to keep someone from inflicting unspeakable pain on another person if it makes him or her feel better? And, if just a little bit of genuine mental disorder is added to our culture’s collective insanity, the results are destined to be catastrophic.

And not only are we flawed creatures, but we live in a tragically broken world. In addition to the human-induced suffering, there are natural calamities and unpredictable disasters. After all, we are only one short year away from a tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 Japanese and just eight years after the Aceh tsunami killed almost 250,000!  No wonder the whole creation “groans” until the day of Christ’s return (Romans 8:18-25).

The frailty of both man and nature does not ultimately cause me to doubt the existence of a loving Creator. In fact, against the backdrop of life as it really is, I am daily gripped by the preciousness of love, the gift of family, and the grace of friendship. I am amazed that any good things happen, that people from time-to-time express generosity and love, and that the sun rises every morning despite our depravity.  Only a loving God could be accountable for wonder and beauty in such a deeply flawed universe. It was Jesus himself who said that God the Father was the one who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).

Atheist Richard Dawkins and I agree on this one thing: without God the universe is vicious and unfeeling. But the world is not completely bereft of beauty, goodness, and truth.  Amidst the darkness of the age, there are glimmers of light. Hope remains for redemption and renewal. This isn’t the way it was meant to be and, thanks be to God, it’s not the way it is going to be. When this “old order” passes away, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore  . . .” (Revelation 21:4).

What Happens When Civilizations Die?

Jonathan Sacks is the erudite chief rabbi of Great Britain. He was educated at Oxford under Bernard Williams, the famous moral philosopher who also happened to be an atheist.  In his recent volume, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning (Schoken, 2012), Rabbi Sacks assesses what happens when religious faith collapses under the weight of secularism.  The impact need not be explosive. In fact, Sacks argues that “civilizations can end not with a bang but with a whimper.” They can die slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly.  According to the Rabbi, five things happen in a culture when religious faith departs. How many boxes can you tick?

  • First, belief in human dignity and the sanctity of life is eroded. “This is not immediately obvious, because the new order announces itself as an enhancement of human dignity. It values autonomy, choice and individual rights . . . But eventually people discover that in the new social order they are more vulnerable and alone. Marriages break up. Communities grow old and weak. They become members of the lonely crowd or the electronic herd.”  Ultimately, Sacks says, “life itself becomes disposable, in the form or abortion and euthanasia.”
  • Second, politics loses its covenantal quality where we understand society as a place where we undertake collective responsibility for the common good. Citizenship “involves loyalty and the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others.” But as civilization collapses, individualism trumps covenantal duty. “Society dissolves into a series of pressure groups and no longer deeply enters our identity. Being British or French or Italian comes to seem more like where you are than who you are.”
  • Third, morality is lost. “This does not mean that people become immoral. Some people do that, whether they are religious or secular; most do not, whether they are religious or secular . . . What happens, though, is that words that once meant a great deal begin to lose their force—words like duty, obligation, honour, integrity, loyalty and trust.”
  • Fourth, when a civilization is dying the institution of marriage dies. “The idea of marriage as a commitment, a loyalty at the deepest level of our being, becomes ever harder to sustain. So fewer people marry, more marriages end in divorce, fewer people—men especially—have a lifelong connection with their children, and the bonds across generations grow thin.”
  • Finally, people lose the belief in the possibility of a meaningful life. People see life as a personal project but there is no sense of vocation, calling and mission. “The universe is silent. Nature is dumb. Life makes no demands on us. The concept of ‘being called’ is one of the last relics of religious memory within a secular culture. A totally secular order would not have space for it or find it meaningful.”

It is not partisan politics to believe what the psalmist said in Psalm 33:

The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the LORD stands forever,
the plans of his heart to all generations.
Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,
the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!

 (Psalm 33:10-12 ESV)

Genetic Screening: Doing the Math

Earlier this month a team of researchers at the University of Washington reported it was able to map the entire genetic blueprint of an unborn baby using only a blood sample from the mother—who was just 18 weeks into her pregnancy—and saliva from the father. They believe that this technique will enable them, with 98% accuracy, to screen a fetus for more than 3,000 genetically linked conditions, including cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and Marfan syndrome. For most of these conditions there is no current treatment or cure. The only way to avoid having a baby with these traits is to avoid bringing the baby to term. In other words, through these tests increasing numbers of unborn children with physical, cognitive, or other disabilities, will either be aborted or die in a petri dish in the fertility clinic.

There is no legal reason these children may not be born, of course, but genetic screening for Down Syndrome is a painful lesson that teaches us how these tests will be used. Today, because of pervasiveness of testing, 90% of children with Down Syndrome are never born! Genetic disability has become a bulls-eye targeting the unborn.  Why would we expect this new battery of tests to be used any differently?

How are we to think about children with disabilities?  First, every human being, regardless of his or her abilities or disabilities, is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:27-28). That’s why the early church not only forbade infanticide, but established the first orphanages to care for children who were abandoned by their families.

Furthermore, the Bible actually has quite a lot to say about persons with disabilities. The blind, the deaf, the mute, and the lame are often mentioned in one way or another. The Holiness Code, for instance, prohibited cursing the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind (Leviticus 19:4). Respect was to be shown instead. Mephibosheth was “crippled in his feet” and “lame” due to being dropped accidentally by his nurse (2 Samuel 4:4; 9:3, 13). The prophet Isaiah taught that despite any impairment, the faithful would receive everlasting blessings (Isaiah 56:3-5). In Jesus’s Parable of the Great Banquet, those who invited “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to the feast are told they will be rewarded at the resurrection (Luke 14:11-14).

It is Jesus himself who bids Christians to be hospitable to those who were unwell. In solidarity with the sick, he said to his disciples, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25: 35-37).  He followed with these famous words, “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (vv. 38-40).

Rather than receiving those with disabilities, our culture of narcissism often rejects and abandons them. There are valiant exceptions, of course. Some courageous parents choose to bring their children into the world, lovingly caring for them, despite the diagnosis of a genetically-linked disorder. Society should applaud their self-sacrifice and love, rather than pity them for their supposed naiveté. There may come a time when the ethical means to treat and cure disabilities are available to us. But in this case, the end of not bearing a child with a disability, does not justify the means of ending the life of the child before birth. In other words, when one counts the cost of this new genetic screening method, the moral arithmetic does not add up.

The Bible, Culture, and Care for the Poor

Charity and care for the poor are nearly synonymous with the tradition on which the West is built. In ancient Israel, God commanded that the corners of the fields remain unharvested so that the poor would have food (Leviticus. 19:9). And the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) is a defining image of charity. Likewise, the apostle Paul enjoined followers of Christ to do honest work, not only for their own well-being, but “so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). The early Christians were so committed to this charitable ethic that even non-canonical documents underscored it. For instance, The Didache, an early Christian guide book said: “Give to everyone who asks thee, and do not refuse”; and the Shepherd of Hermas called on believers to “Give simply to all without asking doubtfully to whom thou givest, but give to all.”

Interestingly, today, 68.4% of all religious-based non-governmental organizations are either
Christian (57.4%) or Jewish (11%). Where the legacy of the biblical tradition is weakest, so
is charitable giving. In his recent survey of the data, Who Really Cares: America’s Charity
Divide, Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks maintains that:

There is so little private charity in Europe that it is difficult to find information on the subject—so irrelevant is it that few researchers have even bothered to investigate . . . Specifically, no Western European population comes remotely close [to] the United States in per capita private charity. The closest nation, Spain, has average giving that is less than half that of the United States. Per person, Americans give three and a half times as much as the French, seven times as much as the Germans, and fourteen times as much as the Italians.

Some Europeans argue that their high taxes pay for what Americans cover with private funds. Brooks points out, however, that

One technical problem arises with this argument: The average tax burden in all European countries is not higher than it is in the United States. A British family, for instance, relinquishes an average of 10.8 percent of its household income to the government in income taxes. This is lower than what an average American family pays—11.3 percent.

This data should not be an occasion for American triumphalism, but a solemn warning about what ignorance of the Bible and the erosion of the Judeo-Christian tradition may mean for the world’s poor.

St. Patrick’s Day: Not Just About Green Beer

A stained glass image of Saint Patrick inside the Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA.

One night in fifth-century Wales, everyone in Calpurnius’ house was in bed asleep—everyone except Patrick, who sat on the edge of his bed. His head was swirling with the dream that had stirred him from a sound slumber. In the dream, a man he had known in Ireland handed Patrick a letter. Accepting it, Patrick read the title, “The Voice of the Irish,” and simultaneously heard voices crying out, “Holy boy, we beg you to come and walk among us once more.” Moved to tears, Patrick was unable to read further. Upon awakening, he realized he had received a mandate from the Lord: He was to return to Ireland, where he had once been enslaved, and bring Christianity to the people.

Little is known about this man now called Saint Patrick. He was born near the end of the fourth century in Wales and grew up in a wealthy, nominally Christian family. But when he was sixteen, raiders pillaged his town and took him captive to Ireland. There, Patrick became a slave to a Druid high priest named Milchu,who made Patrick a shepherd. During this period of isolation and brutality, Patrick came to know the Lord. He wrote of his experience:

“[T]here the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that . . . I might . . . turn with all my heart to the Lord my God . . . And [the Lord] watched over me . . . and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.”

After six years of enslavement, Patrick dreamed that God told him about a ship waiting to take him to freedom. He escaped that very night, traveling over 200 miles to reach the Irish coast, from where a ship, indeed, brought him back to his native Britain.

Patrick had changed. He was now twenty-two years old, fluent in Irish and toughened by trying experiences. At home, he felt restless and made plans to enter the ministry. He traveled to Auxerre, France, where he studied under Saint Germain for some fifteen years. Saint Germain believed in Patrick’s vision and helped him to his appointment as the second bishop to Ireland. It was a fortuitous appointment, for Patrick’s understanding of the Irish culture and language made him adept at winning converts, and he soon developed a following.

Still, the going was tough. Patrick was evangelizing people who warred for a living and whose native religion, Druidism, required human sacrifice. The Druid religious leaders were not at all tolerant of Christianity, and though Patrick converted many of them, others arrested and kidnapped him a number of times. The churches and schools he established were under constant threat of raids and enslavement, but they prospered nonetheless.

Through it all, Patrick remained steadfast: “[D]aily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises. But I fear nothing.” The persecution was real, but by God’s grace and after every reversal, Patrick escaped and returned to his evangelical mission.

Of the thousands taken captive by the Irish, the vast majority remained in captivity, living out their days in bitterness and travail. Others gained their freedom within Ireland but conformed to their captors’ culture. A handful managed to escape to their native lands but continued in a pagan lifestyle. And then there was Patrick, one of thousands, who, in the darkness of captivity, turned to God and set his heart on reaching Ireland for Christ. As Catholic journalist Anita McSorley writes,

“It doesn’t take a scholar to recognize how [Patrick] was able to do this. [He] was so certain that he had been specifically called by God to do exactly what he did . . . In this certainty, Patrick finds his strength . . . to overcome every obstacle . . .”

And that strength was sufficient. When he died, he had traversed the entire terrain of Ireland and preached the gospel with great effect, as he was happy to recall:

“So, [that is] how in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God . . .”

The Christian Origins of Hospitals

Contrary to Kevin Drum’s blog at Mother Jones hospitals, at least historically speaking, are not secular institutions. In fact, the modern hospital system owes its existence to people of faith.

Christians have been leaders in medicine and the building of hospitals because their founder, Jesus of Nazareth, healed the sick during his ministry on earth (see Matt. 9; 10:8; 25: 34-26). The early church not only endorsed medicine, but championed care for the sick.

Rabbinic sources often cite the second century BC apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus as a reminder that medicine owes its origins to God:

“Honor the physician . . . from God the physician gets wisdom . . . God brings forth medicines from the earth and let a prudent man not ignore them” (38:1).

Admittedly, the Greeks and Romans made great contributions to early medicine, but as Albert Jonsen, University of Washington historian of medicine, maintains:

“the second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia, and concludes at the end of the fourteenth century, with medicine well ensconced in the universities and in the public life of the emerging nations of Europe.”

This extraordinary, formative period in medicine was characterized by intimate involvement by the Church. Jonsen argues:

“During these centuries the Christian faith . . . permeated all aspects of life in the West. The very conception of medicine, as well as its practice, was deeply touched by the doctrine and discipline of the Church. This theological and ecclesiastical influence manifestly shaped the ethics of medicine, but it even indirectly affected its science since, as its missionaries evangelized the peoples of Western and Northern Europe, the Church found itself in a constant battle against the use of magic and superstition in the work of healing. It championed rational medicine, along with prayer, to counter superstition.”

St. Basil of Ceasarea (330-379), founder of the first hospital in 369.

As a means of caring for those who were ill, St. Basil of Caesarea founded the first hospital (c. 369). Christian hospitals grew apace, spreading throughout both the East and the West. By the mid-1500s there were 37,000 Benedictine monasteries alone that cared for the sick. It was not until four centuries after St. Basil’s hospital that Arab Muslims began to build hospitals.

Furthermore, as Charles Rosenberg shows in his volume, The Care of Strangers, The Rise of America’s Hospital System*, the modern hospital owes its origins to Judeo-Christian compassion. Evidence of the vast expansion of faith-based hospitals is seen in the legacy of their names: St. Vincent’s, St. Luke’s, Mt. Sinai, Presbyterian, Mercy, and Beth Israel. These were all charitable hospitals, some of which began as foundling hospitals to care for abandoned children.

Similarly, in Europe, great hospitals were built under the auspices of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, an ancient French term for hospital is hôtel-Dieu (“hostel of God”). In 1863, the Société Genevoise d’Utilité Publique called on Swiss Christian businessman Jean Henri Dunant to form a relief organization for caring for wartime wounded. Thus, the emblem of the Red Cross was codified in the Geneva Convention one year later. In Britain, Dame Cicely Saunders founded the hospice movement by establishing St. Christopher’s Hospice in the south of London in 1967.

So it seems natural that Christians might find it historically naïve to say they don’t have a stake in what goes on in hospitals and whether or not, especially in religious-operated hospitals, contraceptive distribution is mandated by the federal government.  See Michelle Malkin’s commentary “First, They Came for the Catholics”

*In 1800, with a population of only 5.3 million, most Americans would only have heard of a hospital. Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hospital was founded in 1751, New York Hospital in 1771, and Boston General did not open until 1821. But by just after the mid-century mark, hospitals were being established in large numbers, and most of them were religious.  Charles E. Rosenberg, The Care of Strangers: The Rise of America’s Hospital System (New York: Basic Books, 1987), especially Chapter 4.

 

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