“Intensely sad yet strangely beautiful”: Vaughan Roberts on assisted dying, dignity and dependence

Vaughan Roberts | May 30th 2017

The subject of assisted dying seems to be in the news most weeks. Vaughan Roberts’ new book, Assisted Suicide, helps readers to think through these complex issues from a Christian perspective. Here he speaks about the crucial need for a book on this topic.

Vaughan, dying is a topic that most of us don’t want to think about! But why is it important for Christians to understand the issues around assisted dying?

We all need to think these things through personally, because each of us has no idea when death and dying will come very close to us. When we—or someone in our family—are facing dementia, or a radical loss of capacity, how will we respond? We need have thought these things through before they become very real and emotional issues. On top of that, our media often presents very strong and emotional arguments in favour of giving people “the right to die”, and it's vital that we are able to speak truth into a very confused debate.

In your book you argue that Christians should be opposed to assisted suicide. Why is that?

As I was preparing to write this book, my own father was told that he had terminal brain cancer, and he died a few months later. The whole experience with gave me a more personal insight into the intense pain involved in these type of circumstances. But it also strengthened my conviction that assisted suicide should be firmly resisted. Christians have a very high view of every human life—each life has been given by God, so we all have huge dignity. And just as God gives life, so it's up to him to take it away. Even in very difficult circumstances, we can trust him that he's at work, and he will end it in his time.

How should Christians bring our perspective into the public debates about assisted dying?

Well for a start, we need to make sure that we are involved in these discussions, even if it's just closer to home—in our offices, in our communities, among our friends, as well as in the national debate. We’ve got good news to share—so let's get engaged. So much of this discussion assumes that some lives are just not worth living—and Christians need to say, no, every life has dignity.

Second, we've also got something important to say about suffering. Our culture can't cope with suffering—it wants to reduce suffering as much as possible and at all costs. Christians say suffering is bad—it's a result of the fall—but God can be wonderfully at work in and through it.

And third, I think one key assumption underlying the argument for assisted suicide is that there's just nothing worse than being dependent on others. But a Christian worldview says that actually our dependence on God and on one another is fundamental to our humanity. It’s a good thing! Illnesses brings that dependence to the fore, and that can be mutually very uplifting—for the carer and the one being cared for—even in the midst of very hard times. My father found the loss of independence the hardest aspect of his illness to cope with. At the very end of his life he was paralysed and unable to speak. Those last few days were intensely sad and yet also, in a strange way, profoundly beautiful. He had given so much to us and now we in the family had the privilege of caring for him, stroking and kissing him, singing his favourite hymns and praying. Such dependence is not undignified. This is being human.

How should we be living these convictions out practically?

Above all, Christians need to be putting our convictions into practice. It was Christians who first pioneered palliative care, and we need to be arguing for more money to be put into that. In our families, churches, and communities, we need to show how much we value every human life, even those that are most dependent—we need to be getting practically engaged in looking after others.

Here’s just one example: every church will have elderly people it can care for. In Western culture we almost worship youth and vitality—and so as people get older, they can be made to feel that they've got nothing to offer. Too often older people are left isolated and alone. But as Christians we know that every single human life has dignity, as made in the image of God. Not only that, we remember that the Lord Jesus Christ came to us while we were completely weak and helpless, and he died for us. So this is one of the ways, I think, in which the authenticity of our Christian faith is seen: Will we serve the most helpless people just as God in Christ served us?

Assisted Suicide by Vaughan Roberts is available now.

Note: a version of this interview originally appeared in Together Magazine.

Vaughan Roberts

Vaughan Roberts is a popular conference speaker, Rector of St Ebbe's Church, Oxford, and Director of the Proclamation Trust. He is also a member of the executive committee of 9:38 Ministries, and the author of many books, including Talking Points: Transgender, God's Big Picture, and Battles Christians Face.

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