Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Legally Right and Morally Wrong

To say that I'm disturbed by the Terri Schiavo situation is an understatement. It should be clear to anyone who has read my posts on the subject, that I'm greatly upset by the moral nature of the problem and what I perceive as the inability or refusal of people to tackle the larger issue of how the state and the law should approach the moral issue of "life."

What I'm wanting to do in this post is discuss this whole question from a Christian perspective. I've reached the point where I believe firmly that the courts in this case may have in fact judged properly in that the "law" made clear how they needed to rule. Yet at the same time, from my afore-mentioned Christian perspective, they seem to have gotten the moral question wrong. I believe, in otherwords, that the courts were ultimately legally right and morally wrong in their decision. Beyond that the ultimate question is, "How does a Christian react to this?"

Legally Right

The most easily understood explanation of how we got where we are legally, in my opinion, is found in this Powerline post. Written by a Florida lawyer, it's analysis focuses on how the Schindlers got out-lawyered in this fight but ends up highlighting clearly how the law got us here:

These organizations were very supportive, but by that point their options were already limited because the trial judge had entered a judgment finding that Terri Schiavo would not have wanted to live.

This fact is of crucial importance -- and it's one often not fully appreciated by the media, who like to focus on the drama of cases going to the big, powerful appeals courts: Once a trial court enters a judgment into the record, that judgment's findings become THE FACTS of the case, and can only be overturned if the fact finder (in this case, the judge) acted capriciously (i.e., reached a conclusion that had essentially no basis in fact).

In this case, the trial judge simply chose to believe Michael Schiavo's version of the facts over the Schindlers'. Since there was evidence to support his conclusion (in the form of testimony from Michael Schiavo's siblings), it became nearly impossible for the Schindlers to overturn it. The judges who considered the case after the trial-level proceeding could make decisions only on narrow questions of law. They had no room to ask, "Hey, wait a minute, would she really want to die?" That "fact" had already been decided.

Once Judge Greer made his ruling in the initial court proceeding, all subsequent reviews of the case were limited to the facts that Greer had allowed in the original finding of fact. Period. Subsequently, none of the other proceedings could include discussion of affidavits not entered in the original proceeding, or filed since or take into account new medical procedures and technology that might shed more or better light on the state of her health. Charles Krauthammer described it this way:

Because following the generally sensible rules of Florida custody laws, conducted with due diligence and great care over many years in this case, this is where the law led. For Congress and the president to then step in and try to override that by shifting the venue to a federal court was a legal travesty, a flagrant violation of federalism and the separation of powers. The federal judge who refused to reverse the Florida court was certainly true to the law.

The matter of whether or not it was right or wise for Congress to step into this matter is another argument, one being made by people far more qualified on the subject than I. Hugh Hewitt, for one, has been making the case on his radio show that the Congress was within it's rights to attempt protecting Terri's 14th Amendment rights. Hugh and others also have addressed the issue of whether the Federal courts have ignored the intent of the bill Congress passed last week. In this post I'm not overly concerned about either point per se, only about understanding how the courts found themselves legally right on the one hand and morally wrong on the other.

Morally Wrong

On Kudlow & Cramer last week, Hugh Hewitt was asked straight-out by host Larry Kudlow in the final segment whether morality trumps legality, in general and specifically in this case. His reply was, "Morality is always more important than law, but I don't think we have to get to that combination today, Larry. It's been 7 days since Terri Schiavo had a sip of water. The United States Congress came back under it's emergency authority to pass a statute. The president signed it. It called for a de novo hearing. That hearing has not been held. It would have been moral to hold the hearing. The failure is on the part of the federal courts. Mrs. Schiavo will die as a result, and that is tragic. And there's no way to explain it except by saying the courts could not be bothered."

Since that appearance Hugh has repeatedly made his case on the radio that, while he believes that the courts' decision(s) are a travesty of justice, he also believes that their rulings must be adhered to. He makes a persuasive case on both points. While he disagrees with whether or not the ruling is truly legally correct, Hugh agrees with many a conservative in calling the decision withholding food and water morally wrong.

In reviewing my earlier posts on this, I think they convey a certain amount of frustration but I'm not sure they also convey fully the outrage I've felt over this. I can only conclude that such outrage comes from my Christian faith. My worldview tells me that such actions, such disregard for the possibilities of life is anti-thetical to what I know of the God of the Bible, in all the same ways that abortion is perceived by many to be a moral wrong.

Many critics of the President's and Congressional action in this like to point out what they perceive as the hypocrisy of George Bush declaring that "we ought to err on the side of life," when he has presided over more than a hundred executions as Governor of Texas. This is just silly posturing; there is a moral distinction between an innocent woman guilty of nothing but misfortune and convicted criminals who have received due process in the form of criminal trials and appeals, that is so clear that--pardon the flip rhetoric, but it makes the point--my dogs get it. State sanctioned killing of an innocent woman when there is reason to doubt what her condition truly is or isn't, is morally wrong. As Hugh pointed out to Larry Kudlow, the moral thing would have been to resolve the doubt and act accordingly.

Now What?

What is the appropriate response of a Christian to wrongs committed by their government against it's own citizens? Paul's writings are full of commands urging believers to obey the authority of those governing them. Such authority comes from God and disregard for it is a serious matter. What then are the 'conditions' under which it is proper for a Christian to disregard the dictates of his government?

Acts 5:28-29 is probably the most obvious example of believers disregarding a direct command from those in authority. The context here is clear and obvious: God's command to speak truth about his Son trumps the right of a ruling authority that tries to silence that truth. Regardless that God had ordained the authority of the Sanhedrin over the Jewish community in Jerusalem, the truth of Christ was more imperative than their rule. Such would be the case today in similar circumstances.

The question is, does a situation like that of the Terri Schiavo case merit a similar imperative? Under a Christian worldview, is the life of a woman in such a vulnerable state worthy of such a solemn act as the blatant disregard of governmental authority?

Would a Christian be right in advocating, for instance, that Jeb Bush use his authority as Chief Executive of the State of Florida and take custody of Terri Schiavo in direct disobedience to court injunctions? Would that be a morally correct response to the ongoing moral-wrong we are witnessing?

Such a question is the ultimate point of this post; What is the correct Christian response to what we are witnessing in Florida? My hope is that this can stimulate a dialog about what is appropriate and what is not for Christians in response to the court-ordered removal of Terri's feeding tube.


Craig Williams said...


Thank you for the invitation to respond to your blog. I beieve the whole nation and beyond shares with you in being deeply disturbed by how the life of Terri Schiavo has been thrown around. Though, admittedly, what people are disturbed about covers the wide range of emotion and argument.

Let me make one observation, not legal, mostly theological, and maybe not a central part of the argument.

My one disappointment in what has been the reported "christian" response (lower case intentional here) to Terri Schiavo's circumstance, is what I would call - a lack of faith. That is, everyone is passionate about protecting her mortal life, however diminished it is, that they fail to recognize that the New Testament takes a bigger view.

This mortal life is never considered what is most important to Christian people. I am no gnostic in this, I believe that flesh and spirit dwell together and must not be separated. But I'm concerned that so many religious people have been outspoken on preserving mortal life, but have talked very little about eternal life.

I'm not saying that we should spiritualize this, but there is a spiritual reality that trumps mortality. As Easter has come and gone, a person outside the faith, looking and listening to the comments being reported, might think that the Christian proclamation of the resurrection was all talk. What disappoints me is that I hear no one talking about the grace of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven that wipes away every tear, or the point of the crucifixion being to overcome death.

The Gospel truth of Easter is that death is not the final word. What I hear mostly from the media is how christians seem to be acting, as though death is the final word and that this word must be avoided at all costs. As Christians we should be making a much louder statement about the grace and mercy and resurrection of our Lord. Easter says and means that Jesus gets the final word not death.

Early Christians faced their own death, not with objection, but with hope. It is said of Christians during the plague in Rome, that they not only took care of their own sick, but also the sick of pagan Rome. They did so because they had come to understand their lives as being beyond terra ferma. Many Christians died caring for the infected. Many converted because of their witness. Terri's and her family's hope should not be in courts, or in doctors, or in miracle cures, but in God.

But this is easy to say from the sidelines. As a pastor I've witnessed this on both sides. Neither is easy nor is there a "right" answer on how to act as a family, as each circumstance, though similar, is also unique.

There is a time to let go and let God. It should happen for us long before we get to these difficult moments in life. As we practice this letting go on a daily basis, we are in fact practicing a response to some of the most profound spiritual challenges we will face in our lives. Oddly enough, letting go and letting God, a 12 step phrase, is something all parents should learn, all employers and employees, all pastors, all people, as well. This is a spiritual discipline that will help us as our lives diminish in a myriad of ways.

We are a culture which avoids death, aging, disability, deformity, anything unlovely and difficult. The biblical witness says to me, stop avoiding. Follow me says Jesus - through death and beyond. The difficulty shapes our character. The unlovely confronts our prejudices. Death seeks to bar our entrance into life.

What I want to hear from the Christian community is a witness that says, "Death is not the finality you all think. Jesus gets the last word. Let's hope and trust him."

Maybe you will view this a cop-out on the issues, I believe it drives us closer to faith.

Thanks again for the invitation for my own rant.

craig williams again said...

One more point. Lewis makes this remarkable observation. He says that it is when someone is heavenly minded that they become earthly good. I believe that applies here. It is not escapist religion I propose. But a faith that confronts our greatest fears and brings hope.

Michael Gallaugher said...

What is a Christian response? If within the context of "How do we save Terri" there really isn't one, even her diehard parents have exhausted all avenues several times over. But if the question: "What is a Christian response" meaning...where do we go from here? I’d answer by saying we have an opportunity to take a moral and Biblical stand against this devaluation of human life which fair minded people of most walks of life (to include Jesse Jackson) agree was immoral and wrong.

WWJD? Jesus would have reacted squarely in the face of the Justices, and the “husband” Michael I’m pretty sure. And believe the Father will ultimately deal with the people on the last day. But while we're hear on earth, it's critical we keep the moral language consistent with the Bible, and common decency.

In practical terms, we should remind others that a judicial system so divorced from righteousness will only produce justice by coincedence, and need to put the moral and the legal into once argument - as you have. I’m working on a writing that goes into the moral identity of the Judeo-Christian ideal in greater depth that I’ll post later.

Mark Daniels said...

Interesting post, Paul.

I agree with your basic assertion that the situation as it stands now is a decision that is morally wrong but legally right.

Here's a thought to throw into the mix. In his book, 'The Politics of Jesus,' the pacifist Christian theologian, John Howard Yoder, argues that in considering a stance toward law that is unjust, two passages from Romans, one in chapter 12 and the other in 13, must be considered.

In one, Paul advises Christians to submit to the authority of governments, established in order to maintain order in a sinful world in which not all are committed to love for God and neighbor.

In the other, he tells Christians not to be conformed to this world.

Taken together, these two passages would seem to say that when governments ask us to diverge from the will of God, we must choose God over governments.

In the Schiavo case, of course, no one has asked us to disobey God. But I think the take-away principle here is that we need to do what we can to:

(1) Change and clarify laws surrounding end of life issues, with a decided bias toward "the pursuit of life..." This needs to be done most especially at the state level.

(2) Share the Good News of Jesus Christ, the acceptance of which causes people to reverence the Giver of life and the gift.

(3) Remind one another that when interacting with other members of our pluralistic culture, we as Christians need to "speak the truth in love." This is not a PR ploy. It's what God in Christ calls us to do.

I think Hugh is right. Acts of civil disobedience seem wrong here. But, by changing the atmosphere of our culture through God-powered, patient, loving service and witnessing in Jesus' Name and firm but loving insistence on the sanctity of human life in the political realm, the laws can be changed.

Just a few thoughts.

charmaine yoest said...

Paul: Thanks for the invitation to respond to your question about how Christians should react to the Terri Schiavo case.

I want to make two points in response to the excellent dialogue above. As a political scientist, one thing that troubles me is the apparent elevation of the courts, not only in their own estimation, but in the public consciousness as well. Many people seem to have forgotten that the Founders intended there to be checks and balances among the three co-equal branches. All three of these branches -- the executive, the judges and the Congress -- were meant to be accountable to the people. Therefore, just because the courts have ruled something does not mean that the people cannot demand that the Congress, or the executive, act to change the direction of public policy more in keeping with the values of the people.

It is a false dichotomy to posit law and morality opposite and as separate entities from one another. Morality is expressed through law. They are one and the same.

My second point is in response to Craig's post about Christians. I think you make a good point about losing the eternal perspective.

I've tried to make a similar point over on my own blog.

Where I would want to add to and extend what you've written is to say that it is precisely the eternal perspective that puts suffering in the appropriate context.

I agree wholeheartedly that "the spiritual reality trumps mortality." However, while we do not fear death, and may even welcome it under some circumstances, we always remember that God's plans and His timing is not ours. The Christian response to suffering is to say: "Not my will, Lord, but Thine."

I believe Christians have been responding -- mostly in appropriate ways -- to a larger culture that insists on pursuing human will, rather than the inscrutable divine one. It's not to say that "death must be avoided at all costs," -- you are right to remind us that Scripture says the death of His saints is precious in God's eyes -- but as human actors in the political realm, we have a moral responsibility to hold our political leaders accountable when they allow death to be imposed on a human timetable for the innocent who cannot speak for themselves -- the unborn, the handicapped, and the elderly.

The Schiavo case speaks to this larger question of life and death decisions across the whole spectrum of human existence -- our choice between what has been aptly termed the culture of life or the culture of death.

With best wishes. . .

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